Varicose veins during pregnancy: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Here's why varicose veins can occur when you're pregnant.
Written by
Kaitlyn Wilson
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Last updated on
June 3, 2024
min read
Varicose Veins During Pregnancy: Causes and Treatment | Kin Fertility
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Your body experiences some wild and wonderful changes during pregnancy. And, one of these may be varicose veins.

While varicose veins won't affect every pregnant person, many do experience a change in their veins. So, what's the deal? Well, we're here to explain their causes, symptoms and treatment options for every parent-to-be.

What are varicose veins?

Varicose veins are enlarged and swollen veins that usually appear on the legs and feet and they are often blue or purple in colour.

We develop varicose veins when the valves inside the veins, which help blood flow in the right direction, become weakened or damaged.

With healthy blood circulation, the veins carry blood from various body parts back to the heart. But when the valves in the veins weaken, the blood can pool or flow backward, causing the veins to stretch and enlarge, which results in varicose veins [1].

What causes varicose veins during pregnancy?

While family history and age play a role in the development of varicose veins, pregnancy is also a culprit.

Hormonal changes, increased blood volume, and the physical pressure exerted on the veins by the growing uterus can all play a significant part in why pregnant people develop varicose veins.

When it comes to hormones, increased levels of progesterone can cause the walls of the veins to relax, which weakens the vein walls and causes the blood to go backward and accumulate in the veins. This build-up can cause the veins to enlarge and become varicose.

A growing baby means a growing uterus, which can also add extra pressure on your leg veins in pregnancy as well as increased pressure on the blood vessels in the pelvic area and lower extremities. This can hinder regular blood flow, and varicose veins develop as a result [2].

What are the symptoms of varicose veins?

Symptoms of varicose veins vary from person to person but there are a few red flags to look out for when it comes to purple veins [3].

  • Visible veins: The most common symptom of varicose veins is the appearance of twisted, bulging veins on the legs or feet. These veins may be blue or purple in colour and can be easily seen through the skin.
  • Pain or discomfort: Varicose veins can cause pain, aching, or a feeling of heaviness in the affected area. The discomfort may worsen after prolonged periods of standing or sitting.
  • Swelling: The affected area may experience mild swelling, especially around the ankles and feet. This swelling is often more pronounced at the end of the day.
  • Itching or tingling: Some varicose veins cause itching or tingling sensations.
  • Muscle cramps: Varicose veins can be accompanied by occasional muscle cramps, particularly during the night.
  • Skin changes: Over time, varicose veins can lead to changes in the skin. This can include skin discolouration, dryness, and skin thinning, making it more susceptible to injury.

How are varicose veins treated during pregnancy?

Treating pregnancy varicosis typically focuses on managing symptoms and providing relief rather than eliminating the veins themselves. It's important to note that treatment options may be limited during pregnancy due to the potential risks to the developing baby.

Here are some common approaches to managing varicose veins while pregnant [4]:

Herbal remedies

Certain herbs, such as horse chestnut and butcher's broom, can be used to treat varicose veins naturally. However, always speak to a doctor before using herbal remedies during pregnancy.

Over-the-counter medication

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or pain relievers can help reduce the pain of varicose veins.

Compression stockings

These specially designed stockings apply gentle pressure to the legs, helping to support the veins and reduce swelling.

Sleep on your left side

Sleeping on your left side is beneficial for varicose veins as it improves blood circulation, reduces pressure on the vena cava and reduces the risk of blood pools forming in the lower legs.

Healthy diet

Eating a healthy, balanced diet packed with nutrients promotes good blood flow, and anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce swelling. This will also help prevent excessive weight gain, which is one of the risk factors for developing varicose veins.

Keep your legs elevated

Keeping your legs elevated when possible, especially while resting or sleeping, helps reduce swelling and relieve discomfort. Try propping up your legs with pillows at night to keep them above the level of your heart.

Supportive measures

Taking breaks to elevate your feet, avoiding tight clothing around the waist and legs, and avoiding crossing your legs can relieve varicose vein symptoms.

Regular exercise

Doing low-impact exercises like walking or swimming can get your blood flowing and alleviate symptoms.

How can I prevent varicose veins in pregnancy?

While it's often not possible to completely avoid varicose veins during pregnancy, there are a few things you can do to help lessen their impact. Here's what you might like to try [5].

Compression socks

Wearing compression stockings during pregnancy helps prevent you from developing varicose veins and also treats them by helping improve blood flow.

Frequent breaks

Getting off your feet and taking frequent breaks can help prevent varicose veins and alleviate some of the symptoms and discomfort associated with varicose veins during pregnancy. However, sitting for too long can make the symptoms worse. It's all about finding the balance.

When exercising, take regular 30-second to 1-minute breaks between sets. Be sure to incorporate regular 15-20 minute breaks to sit down and elevate your legs throughout the day too.

Cold compress

Using a cold compress can have many benefits when it comes to preventing pain and swelling from varicose veins.

Here is how to use cold compresses for varicose veins during pregnancy:

  • Prepare the compress: Soak a clean washcloth in cold water or wrap an ice pack in a thin towel. Make sure the compress is not too cold to avoid damaging your skin.
  • Apply the compress: Gently place the cold compress on the affected area of the varicose veins. Hold it there for about 15 minutes. Avoid applying excessive pressure or leaving the compress in place for too long to prevent skin damage.
  • Repeat as needed: You can repeat the cold compress application several times a day, especially when you experience discomfort or swelling.

Do varicose veins increase my risk of other health problems?

Varicose veins themselves are generally not considered a serious health condition, but they can increase the risk of certain complications and may indicate an underlying venous insufficiency.

Here are some potential health problems associated with varicosis [6]:

  1. Blood clots: They can increase your risk of developing blood clots, particularly deep vein thrombosis (DVT). While the risk of this is low, if a clot dislodges and travels to the lungs, it can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism.
  2. Ulcers: Venous ulcers are open sores that typically occur on the lower legs or ankles. They can be painful, slow to heal, and prone to infection. They require medical attention and proper wound care.
  3. Bleeding: In some cases, veins close to the surface of the skin rupture and cause bleeding. Although the bleeding is usually minimal, it can be alarming. Apply direct pressure and seek medical attention if significant bleeding occurs.
  4. Superficial thrombophlebitis: Superficial thrombophlebitis is the inflammation and blood clotting in a superficial vein, typically near the skin's surface. It can cause pain, redness, and swelling in the affected area.
  5. Increased discomfort and pain: Varicosis can cause symptoms such as aching, heaviness, itching, and leg cramps. These symptoms can affect daily activities and quality of life.

It's important to note that not everyone with varicose veins will develop these complications. However, you should consult a healthcare provider if you experience persistent pain, swelling, skin changes, or other concerning symptoms.

Do pregnancy varicose veins go away?

In many cases, varicose veins tend to relax after pregnancy. After giving birth, your hormone levels gradually return to normal, which helps lessen the appearance after pregnancy.

There is also less pressure on the legs and blood vessels post-pregnancy, which helps alleviate the strain on your veins. You may notice the veins returning to somewhat normal after a period of time. While they may fade for some, varicose veins can stick around after birth for others.

If your painful varicose veins persist long after pregnancy, be sure to discuss this with your doctor.

If they are becoming an issue, there are a few procedures to treat varicose veins. You can have them surgically removed, or have them closed off using heat or a special foam. Removing varicosis doesn't affect the blood supply to the legs because the blood is then "re-directed" and transported by other healthy veins instead [7].

Photo credit: Getty Images

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