When a vein becomes damaged, blood sticks together, much like a scab that forms when you cut your finger. But too much clotting can cause problems, such as pulmonary embolism, a dangerous condition wherein a blood clot breaks free from a deep vein and makes its way into an artery in the lung.
Blood vessels have the important job of moving blood throughout the body. Blood vessels called arteries carry blood from the heart to all other parts of the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the body’s organs and tissues. Veins, another type of blood vessel, return the blood to the heart and lungs to restock its supply of oxygen.
This blood delivery system is incredibly efficient, until something goes wrong. When arteries become blocked or narrowed, it can cause coronary artery disease, stroke, or peripheral artery disease. When a problem develops in the veins, it can cause varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, and, in the worst case scenario, a pulmonary embolism.
Vein and Vein Valve Problems
The veins are designed to move blood in one direction—to the heart. Valves within the veins are meant to keep the blood from flowing backward. But when the veins or the valves within the veins become weak or damaged, it can cause blood clots and swelling. Blood clots and swelling can also damage the vein and its valves. It’s a vicious circle. If a valve in the vein doesn’t close all the way because of swelling or damage in the vein, blood can flow back into veins in the leg. The accumulation of blood in the veins increases the risk of more clotting and damage to the veins.
Our bodies are designed to heal themselves. So when a vein becomes damaged, blood clots or sticks together to repair it—similar to the scab that forms when you cut your finger. But too much clotting can cause problems. When blood clots form in the veins, they can interfere with the flow of blood to the heart. Blood clots can also break free and put your heart at risk (see pulmonary embolism).
You are at greater risk for blood clots if you:
- spend days in bed
- sit in a car or airplane for long stretches without standing or walking around
- have leg, hip, stomach, or brain surgery
- have cancer, heart failure, stroke, or a severe infection
- are pregnant or have given birth (Cesarean increases the risk)
- have hormonal changes from birth control pills or hormone therapy
- are older; people over age 70 are at the greatest risk
- are overweight
Are You at Risk?
Many people with vein problems never have a symptom. So it’s important to check with your doctor to see if you are at risk, especially if you:
- have a family history of vein problems
- are older, especially over age 70
- are pregnant or recently had a baby
- have had or are experiencing hormonal changes, for example, pregnancy or menopause
- use estrogen or oral contraception
- stand, sit, or stay in bed for long periods of time
- have a prior history of blood clots
- have been injured
- have been ill
- have been in the hospital or intensive care unit
- have recently had surgery or treatment for cancer
- have had too much sun exposure
- do not exercise
- go too long without water
- have had an infection
- have had congestive heart failure
- have varicose veins
- have inflammatory bowel disease
A diagnosis of venous disease doesn’t mean that you will have pain and discomfort for the rest of your life. You can do a lot to feel better and reduce your risk for more problems and discomfort. See SecondsCount’s Healthy Vein Checklist for suggestions on how to feel better and discuss your treatment options with your doctor.
If you haven’t been diagnosed and you don’t have any symptoms, but you think you are at risk for venous disease, ask your doctor. He or she can help you determine if you should consider additional testing or how you can reduce your risk with healthy lifestyle choices, such as losing weight and quitting smoking. Get the most out of your appointment by printing Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Leg Vein Problems to take with you and discuss.