Circulatory disorders of the legs are a common problem in the elderly. It is often seen as a part of aging yet these conditions are often preventable and the effects minimized once it develops. Leg vein problems are by far the most common and two conditions in particular plague seniors – varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Both these conditions have a similar effect on the circulation in that it impairs the return of low oxygen blood back to the heart. Over time a host of complications arise, which cause significant discomfort, disability and can even be life-threatening.
Causes of Leg Vein Problems
Blood that is rich in oxygen and nutrients is constantly needed by the every part of the body, It is carried by arteries and is therefore known as arterial blood. The oxygen and nutrients are deposited in the tissue spaces and the blood has to return to the liver and lungs for more nutrients and oxygen. It returns by the way of veins (venous blood). Waste products and carbon dioxide are constantly produced by every cell and is also deposited into the venous blood. Just as important as it is for arterial blood to reach every part of the body, it is equally important for venous blood to be carried away from the legs back to the liver, heart and lungs in the trunk.
Venous blood flow in the legs is a bit different from other parts of the body. Since the lowest parts of the legs – the feet, ankles and lower legs – are so far from the heart, it does not have pressure to return to the trunk. Furthermore it has to battle against the downward pull of gravity to return to the heart. The body therefore has a mechanism to help this venous blood flow. First tiny valves in the leg veins prevents blood from flowing backwards as it moves up towards the trunk. Second the muscles of the leg press against the veins during movement to squeeze the blood up the leg similar to a pump.
However, if a person stands or sits for long periods of time then this mechanism does not work efficiently since the legs are stationary. It is further compounded with :
- advancing age
- hormonal changes in the body
- cigarette smoking
- family history of leg vein problems
Blood pools in the leg stretching the veins and starts clotting further worsening the problem. Apart from the age factor that increases the chance of these conditions in the elderly, a more sedentary life in the senior years and being immobilized in bed for long periods with disabilities, illness or hospitalization increases the chances of leg vein problems in the elderly.
Types of Leg Vein Problems
Leg vein problems arise when the veins become damaged or dysfunctional in a way that does not allow for the venous blood to return efficiently back to the trunk. Sometimes the valves of the leg veins cannot close properly and the veins become dilated and twisted. This is known as varicose veins and affects the superficial veins of the leg. Another condition that arises in the deeper veins of the leg is when clots form inside the vein and obstruct the flow of blood. This condition is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Blood that remains in the legs causes the surrounding tissue to become starved of fresh oxygenated blood. It leads to various complications like discoloration of the skin, hardening and thickening of the skin, pain, itching, swelling and open sores in the skin of the legs. Blood that is not flowing freely can also become clotted and if this clot breaks away, travels through the bloodstream and lodges in the artery of the lung, it can be fatal.
Prevention of Leg Vein Problems
The key to preventing leg vein problem is by reducing or removing the causes and risk factors. Some factors such as age and family history cannot be changed (non-modifiable risk factors) but others can be avoided with just minimal effort (modifiable risk factors). Measures that will help prevent leg vein problems or at least minimize its effect once it is present includes :
- Walk and move around as much as possible during daily tasks.
- Long walks as part of a daily exercise regimen.
- Stop cigarette smoking.
- Lose weight.
- Elevate the legs when sitting.
- Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time or at least take short walks in between.
- Use compression stockings as prescribed by a doctor once the problem develops.
Last Updated: February 3rd, 2012 by