June 24, 2021
Many people think of varicose veins as simply a cosmetic issue, or that any pain or discomfort they might be feeling is temporary and will go away on its own.
But leaving varicose veins untreated, or even misdiagnosing them, can lead to avoidable complications like hyperpigmentation, when the skin becomes dark and discoloured, or spontaneous bleeding, when even the lightest scratch may cause a rupture leading to significant blood loss.
There are even worse, potentially fatal consequences if you leave your varicose veins untreated. In this article, we will talk about two of the worst case scenarios that could happen if you don’t take the early warning signs seriously: venous leg ulcers and deep vein thrombosis.
The Stages of Vein Disease
Vein disease, otherwise known as Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI), will affect up to 20 million of us in the UK at some point during our lives, with symptoms becoming more severe with age.
Strictly speaking, thread veins (or ‘spider veins’) are a kind of varicose vein that can appear anywhere on the body, including the face (commonly the cheeks, nose, or chin), thighs, knees, or ankles.
Larger and longer veins are sometimes called ‘trunk’ or ‘reticular’ varicose veins. This symptom, which is not necessarily preceded by thread veins, is often accompanied by pain and discomfort, leading to fatigue, burning or numbing. This is the stage at which many people realise they are suffering from varicose veins. It is therefore best to seek treatment at this stage, before the disease leads to more serious complications that are more difficult to treat.
If left untreated, this may then lead to swelling in the legs or ankles, as the vein disease causes further damage to the circulatory system. As the condition of your affected veins worsen, this can then start to darken the colour of your skin, when the veins start to leak excess blood into the surrounding tissue.
If the skin gets broken, it can take a long time for the bleeding to stop or for wounds to heal.
This most serious and potentially fatal complication is when blood clots start to form in a vein deep in the body. This can happen without any symptoms, or it may present with pain or discomfort.
This can be fatal because if the blood clots break free and travel inside your veins, they can get stuck in the lungs, blocking the flow of blood (pulmonary embolism). If this happens, you may experience any of the following: shortness of breath, coughing blood, rapid pulse, dizziness, chest pain or rapid pulse.
If there are numerous blood clots, or they are particularly large, this can lead to death if they don’t go away.
Venous Leg Ulcers
Another potentially very serious consequence of vein disease is venous leg ulcers, which most often develop on the inside of the leg, right above the ankle. When leg veins don’t send enough blood back to the heart, this can apply increasing pressure on the skin, leading to the formation of open sores. These ulcers, which are often very painful, heal slowly (3-4 months if treated by a professional) and can keep coming back if they are not treated by a specialist.
Venous ulcers are a major source of infection that can lead to bone inflammation (osteomyelitis) or sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition when the body’s response to an infection turns on body tissues and starts affecting how organs function, in some cases leading to death. In extreme cases, amputation may be required.
If you’re starting to notice that you have varicose veins, don’t wait for throbbing pain, discoloured skin, venous ulcers or deep vein thrombosis to take your symptoms seriously. Seek specialist treatment immediately as early as possible so that you can put your mind at rest. You may not even need treatment, but it’s always advisable to have the opinion of a vascular specialist doctor.
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