Many people deal with varicose or "spider" veins the same way: They hide them. When those reddish or blue bulges appear on legs and thighs, there's a temptation to buy a wardrobe full of long skirts and pants and pretend this isn't happening.
But guess what? Many of the people you're hiding your legs from also have varicose veins. No fewer than 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women have varicose veins or the less prominent, weblike spider veins that show up on the thigh. That means more than 20 million Americans in all are involved in this cover-up.
Sometimes varicose and spider veins can be quite painful, but it's reassuring to know they usually are not serious and don't lead to other problems in the legs or circulatory system. You can't change the veins, but you can ease the pain. Here's what the experts recommend.
Take two aspirin every day. "One of the easiest ways to get relief is to take half an aspirin every morning and every night," says Luis Navarro, M.D., founder and director of the Vein Treatment Center and senior clinical instructor of surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, both in New York City. "Not only does aspirin help relieve any pain you might have from varicose veins, it also increases blood mobility."
Tilt your bed. One simple remedy is to place bricks or blocks of wood under your bed's footboard, so your feet will be raised a few inches, suggests Andrew Lazar, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. But check with your doctor first if you have a history of heart trouble or difficulty breathing during the night.
Learn yoga. A simple yoga breathing practice can help relieve varicose vein pain, says John Clarke, M.D., a cardiologist with the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Simply lie flat on your back and prop your feet up on a chair. Breathe slowly by expanding your diaphragm--that is, the whole area just under your lungs. (With diaphragmatic breathing, your stomach should rise and fall.) While doing this, breathe through your nose. In this position, gravity pulls excess blood out of your raised legs, and your full, steady inhalations create negative pressure in your chest, Dr. Clarke says. This negative pressure helps pull air into the chest cavity, which also helps get the blood flowing from your legs into the trunk area of your body.
Put up your feet--a lot. Weakened veins lack the strength to return blood to the heart. Since veins in your legs are farthest from the heart, you're helping them out whenever you get gravity on your side.
For one exercise that brings relief, lie flat on your back, raise your legs straight up in the air, and rest them against a wall for two minutes. Or simply place your legs on an easy chair to raise them above hip level whenever they're aching. Using either of these leg-raising methods, the discomfort should start to go away, says Dudley Phillips, M.D., a family practitioner in Darlington, Maryland.
Get those legs moving. "Any exercise that helps strengthen the legs can help varicose veins," says Dr. Navarro. "That's because when muscles contract, their compression empties the superficial veins and sends the blood to the deep veins and toward the heart." Although some reports claim that bicycling and running worsen varicose veins, Dr. Navarro says that applies only to excessive amounts of exercise. "Unless you're a professional athlete, any exercise will help," he says.
Watch your salt intake. Salt in the diet contributes to swelling, according to Dr. Navarro. "So if you have a propensity toward swelling, you're better off restricting the amount of salt you consume." Avoid salting your meals, and look for low-salt or sodium-free packaged products. And watch out for fast food that's usually high in salt.
And watch your weight. Added body weight, especially excess abdominal fat, creates more pressure on your groin; this makes it harder for venous blood to return to the heart. Keep your weight down and chances are you'll have fewer problems with bulging veins, says Lenise Banse, M.D., a dermatologist and director of the Northeast Family Dermatology Center near Detroit.
Avoid constriction. Girdles and other constricting clothing can act like tourniquets and keep blood pooled in your legs. If you have varicose veins, it's advisable to wear loose-fitting clothing and give up knee highs.
Stock up on special stockings. Support stockings and compression stockings, available in pharmacies and department stores, resist the blood's tendency to pool in the small blood vessels closest to the skin, says Dr. Phillips. When you wear these stockings, the blood is pushed into the larger, deeper veins, where it is more easily pumped back up to the heart. Compression stockings exert twice as much pressure as support stockings. Dr. Navarro suggests you choose a pair with a rating of 20 to 25 millimeters of mercury compression. The higher the compression, the greater the support these stockings provide. But there is a trade-off. Stockings with higher compression are less comfortable to wear.
Join the nonsmokers. A report from the Framingham Heart Study says smokers have a higher incidence of varicose veins, and researchers suggest that smoking may be a risk factor.