Varicose veins do not always need treatment. If your varicose veins are not causing you discomfort, you may not need to have treatment.
Treatment of varicose veins is usually only necessary to:
- ease symptoms – if your varicose veins are causing you pain or discomfort
- treat complications – such as leg ulcers, swelling or skin discolouration
Some people also get treatment for cosmetic reasons – but this kind of treatment is rarely available on the NHS, so you'll usually have to pay for it to be done privately
If treatment is necessary, your doctor may first recommend self care at home.
This may involve:
- using compression stockings (your blood circulation will first be checked to see if these are suitable for you)
- exercising regularly
- avoiding standing up for long periods
- elevating the affected area when resting
Compression stockings are not suitable for everyone. Before these can be recommended for you, you'll need to have a test called a Doppler investigation to check your blood circulation.
Compression stockings are specially designed to steadily squeeze your legs to improve circulation. They're often tightest at the ankle and get gradually looser as they go further up your leg. This encourages blood to flow upwards towards your heart.
They may help relieve the pain, discomfort and swelling in your legs caused by your varicose veins. But it's not known whether the stockings help prevent your varicose veins getting worse, or if they prevent new varicose veins appearing.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) only recommends using compression stockings as a long-term treatment for varicose veins if all other treatments are not suitable for you.
If you're pregnant and have varicose veins, NICE says you may be offered compression stockings for the duration of your pregnancy.
Compression stockings are available in a variety of different sizes and pressures. Most people with varicose veins will be prescribed a class 1 (light compression) or class 2 (medium compression) stocking.
They are also available in:
- different colours
- different lengths – some come up to your knee, while others also cover your thigh
- different foot styles – some cover your whole foot, and some stop before your toes
Compression tights are also available, but not on the NHS. They can be bought from pharmacies or directly from the manufacturers.
You may need to wear compression stockings for the rest of your life if you have deep venous incompetence (blockages or problems with the valves in the deep veins in your legs).
In these circumstances, you'll need to wear compression stockings even if you've had surgery to treat some varicose veins.
Wearing compression stockings
You usually need to put your compression stockings on as soon as you get up in the morning and take them off when you go to bed.
They can be uncomfortable, particularly during hot weather, but it's important to wear your stockings correctly to get the most benefit from them.
Pull them all the way up so the correct level of compression is applied to each part of your leg. Do not let the stocking roll down, or it may dig into your skin in a tight band around your leg.
Speak to the GP if the stockings are uncomfortable or do not seem to fit. It may be possible to get custom-made stockings that will fit you exactly.
If custom-made compression stockings are recommended, your legs will need to be measured in several places to make sure they're the correct size.
If your legs are often swollen, they should be measured in the morning, when any swelling is likely to be minimal.
If compression stockings are causing the skin on your legs to become dry, try applying a moisturising cream (emollient) before you go to bed to keep your skin moist.
You should also keep an eye out for sore marks on your legs, as well as blisters and discolouration.
Caring for compression stockings
Compression stockings usually have to be replaced every 3 to 6 months. If your stockings become damaged, speak to a GP because they may no longer be effective.
You should be prescribed 2 stockings (or 2 sets of stockings if you're wearing 1 on each leg) so that 1 stocking can be worn while the other is being washed and dried.
Compression stockings should be hand washed in warm water and dried away from direct heat.
If your varicose veins need further treatment or they're causing complications, the type of treatment will depend on your general health and the size, position and severity of your veins.
A vascular specialist (a doctor who specialises in veins) will be able to advise you about the most suitable form of treatment for you.
One of the first treatments offered will usually be endothermal ablation.
This involves using energy either from high-frequency radio waves (radiofrequency ablation) or lasers (endovenous laser treatment) to seal the affected veins.
Radiofrequency ablation involves heating the wall of your varicose vein using radiofrequency energy.
The vein is accessed through a small cut made just above or below the knee.
A narrow tube called a catheter is guided into the vein using an ultrasound scan. A probe is inserted into the catheter that sends out radiofrequency energy.
This heats the vein until its walls collapse, closing it and sealing it shut. Once the vein has been sealed shut, your blood will naturally be redirected to one of your healthy veins.
The procedure may cause some short-term side effects, such as pins and needles (paraesthesia).
You may need to wear compression stockings for up to a week after having radiofrequency ablation.
Endovenous laser treatment
As with radiofrequency ablation, endovenous laser treatment involves having a catheter inserted into your vein and using an ultrasound scan to guide it into the correct position.
A tiny laser is passed through the catheter and positioned at the top of your varicose vein.
The laser delivers short bursts of energy that heat up the vein and seal it closed. The laser is slowly pulled along the vein using the ultrasound scan to guide it, allowing the entire length of the vein to be closed.
Endovenous laser treatment is carried out under either local or general anaesthetic.
After the procedure you may feel some tightness in your legs, and the affected areas may be bruised and painful. Nerve injury is also possible, but it's usually only temporary.
If endothermal ablation treatment is unsuitable for you, you'll usually be offered a treatment called sclerotherapy instead.
This treatment involves injecting special foam into your veins. The foam scars the veins, which seals them closed.
This type of treatment may not be suitable if you've previously had deep vein thrombosis.
The injection is guided to the vein using an ultrasound scan. It's possible to treat more than one vein in the same session.
Foam sclerotherapy is usually carried out under local anaesthetic, where a painkilling medication will be used to numb the area being treated.
After sclerotherapy, your varicose veins should begin to fade after a few weeks as stronger veins take over the role of the damaged vein, which is no longer filled with blood.
You may require treatment more than once before the vein fades, and there's a chance the vein may reappear.
Although sclerotherapy has proven to be effective, it's not yet known how effective foam sclerotherapy is in the long term.
Sclerotherapy can also cause side effects, including:
- blood clots in other leg veins
- changes to skin colour – for example, brown patches over the treated areas
- temporary vision problems
You should be able to walk and return to work immediately after having sclerotherapy. You'll need to wear compression stockings or bandages for up to a week.
If endothermal ablation treatments and sclerotherapy are unsuitable for you, you'll usually be offered a surgical procedure called ligation and stripping to remove the affected veins.
Varicose vein surgery is usually carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you will be asleep during the procedure.
You can usually go home the same day, but an overnight stay in hospital is sometimes necessary, particularly if you're having surgery on both legs.
If you're referred for surgery, you may want to ask your surgeon some questions, such as:
- who will do my operation?
- how long will I have to wait for treatment?
- will I have to stay in hospital overnight?
- how many treatment sessions will I need?
Read more about questions to ask a doctor.
Ligation and stripping
A technique called ligation and stripping involves tying off the vein in the affected leg and then removing it.
2 small incisions are made. The first is made near your groin at the top of the varicose vein and is approximately 5cm in diameter.
The second, smaller cut is made further down your leg, usually around your knee. The top of the vein (near your groin) is tied up and sealed.
A thin, flexible wire is passed through the bottom of the vein and then carefully pulled out and removed through the lower cut in your leg.
The blood flow in your legs will not be affected by the surgery. This is because the veins deep within your legs will take over the role of the damaged veins.
Ligation and stripping can cause pain, bruising and bleeding. More serious complications are rare, but could include nerve damage or deep vein thrombosis, where a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins of the body.
After the procedure, you may need up to 3 weeks to recover before returning to work, although this depends on your general health and the type of work you do.
You may need to wear compression stockings for up to a week after surgery.
Transilluminated powered phlebectomy is a relatively new treatment, and there's some uncertainty about its effectiveness and safety.
NICE does not recommend it as part of the normal treatment plan for varicose veins. But it says the treatment may be offered if a doctor thinks it'll help and the benefits and risks are explained.
During transilluminated powered phlebectomy, 1 or 2 small incisions are made in your leg.
The surgeon will place a light called an endoscopic transilluminator underneath your skin so they're able to see which veins need to be removed. The affected veins are cut before being removed through the incisions using a suction device.
Transilluminated powered phlebectomy can either be carried out under general anaesthetic or local anaesthetic. You may experience some bruising or bleeding afterwards.
Another new procedure is called cyanoacrylate glue occlusion. This involves injecting a special type of glue into affected veins. The glue seals the veins shut, stopping them filling with blood and improving symptoms.
Evidence suggests that this procedure is both safe and effective. But there are currently not many doctors trained to carry it out, so access to it on the NHS is limited in most areas.