Hopefully, you never get them, but if you do, you’re in good company! Varicose veins are a common affliction. In fact, between 10 and 30% of the population suffers from varicose veins. These unsightly veins are more common in women, although men get them too.
If you have them, you probably know what they look like – dilated, distorted-looking veins, usually in the lower extremities. They’re often blue in color and sometimes bulging. Varicose veins are an eyesore, but they can be associated with other symptoms as well. Some people with varicose veins, or varicosities, have persistent itching around the affected veins, mild swelling, or heaviness and fatigue in the legs.
Weightlifters get varicose veins too. In fact, some people believe they’re more common in serious weightlifters, especially those who lift heavy weights. Why might this be?
When you lift heavy weights, it increases the pressure inside your abdominal cavity. The rise in intra-abdominal pressure places extra force on the veins in your lower extremities, including the valves. Over time, the increased pressure can damage the valves. Valves are there to ensure that blood flows in only one direction. Valves in the legs normally carry blood back to the heart. If the valve is damaged, blood can pool in the legs rather than go where they should go, back to the heart. This pooling, over time, causes the veins in the leg to dilate. Voila! You have varicose veins.
But, before you give up weight training to keep varicose veins at bay, moderate weight training shouldn’t increase your risk. You’re more likely to see varicosities in people who lift super heavy, like powerlifters. And don’t forget, a heavy weightlifter’s veins will pop out to some degree when they lift a heavy weight. So, it might not be varicose veins you’re seeing, but veins that are more prominent temporarily due to increased intraabdominal pressure. Weight trainers who are most predisposed to varicosities are those who lift at near their one-rep max consistently. If you do lots of squats and deadlifts with weights this heavy, you place stress on the valves in your leg veins because you’re generating lots of pressure in your abdomen. If you do this repeatedly over time, and you’re genetically predisposed to develop varicose veins, you may develop them yourself.
Other Risk Factors for Varicose Veins
Three factors that strongly increase the likelihood of developing varicosities are age, being overweight, and having a genetic predisposition. Pregnancy also increases the likelihood because the weight of the fetus puts pressure on the veins in your legs.
Veins are made of collagen, a tough structural protein that gives veins their strength. They’re also composed of elastin, a stretchy material that allows veins to dilate. There’s an ideal ratio of collagen to elastin in a healthy vein. You want it to be strong but still stretchable. People with varicose veins tend to have a lower ratio of elastin to collagen and this tendency is inherited. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop them. Lifestyle plays a role too.
Overall, Exercise May Lower Your Risk of Varicosities
Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking or running, may reduce your risk of developing varicose veins. How so? For one, it helps with weight control and being lighter, especially around the trunk, reduces pressure on the veins in your lower legs. Plus, every time you take a step, the muscle contracts and sends blood back to your heart. Therefore, there’s less pooling in your lower legs. Even weight training, in moderation, may lower your risk of varicosities. Lower body exercises that build stronger calf muscles are beneficial. Strong calf muscles can better propel blood back to the heart and prevent pooling.
Exercise also helps because it means the time that you aren’t sitting in a chair. Sitting too long is another risk factor for varicose veins. When you sit, blood naturally pools in your legs because you aren’t contracting your calf muscles. In addition, exercise helps with weight control. Being overweight or obese places extra pressure on the veins in your lower body as well as their valves.
What Else Can You Do to Prevent Varicose Veins?
Keep your weight under control and sit less. Diet is a factor too. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber. Lack of fiber in your diet can lead to constipation and straining places pressure on the veins in your legs. Make sure you’re consuming enough vitamin C by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C is essential for building healthy collagen.
Can You Cure Them?
Once you have varicosities, you can’t reverse them entirely through lifestyle changes. However, there are treatments for these unsightly veins. The best approach depends on the severity of the problem. Vascular surgeons offer a technique called sclerotherapy to treat varicose veins. To vanquish the veins, they inject a saline or chemical solution into the veins. The vein becomes irritated by the solution and shrivels up. The veins subsequently disappear.
Another procedure called endovenous laser is a more advanced technique. First, the surgeon makes a small puncture. They then guide a laser into the veins to treat them with the power of high-frequency light waves. This procedure can be done in an office setting. In some cases, larger varicose veins require surgery. However, vascular surgeons can sometimes do the surgery using tiny incisions that heal quickly and don’t require suturing.
You may have heard that wearing compression or support stockings is helpful for varicose veins. By providing support for the veins, they can relieve the symptoms of small varicose veins, but they won’t cure established varicose veins. Wearing them consistently may prevent them though.
The Bottom Line
Varicose veins are common and treatable with certain techniques. Unless you lift very heavy and do it often, there’s little evidence that weight training increases your likelihood of getting them. Exercise, in general, is a positive because muscle contractions keep blood from pooling in your legs. So, keep working out and know that other people, regardless of whether they lift weights, have them too.
Int Angiol. 2002 Dec;21(4):337-43.
WebMD.com. “Sclerotherapy for Varicose and Spider Veins”