Spider veins are extremely common, but that doesn't make them any less unappealing. Good leg circulation will help prevent them, and there are treatments that will erase them.
Spider veins get their name from the web of red or blue veins that often start to spread across your legs as you age. They’re dilated superficial blood vessels like varicose veins, but smaller and closer to the skin. Spider veins are often in areas behind the knee, says Douglas Joseph, DO, a vascular medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, but they can appear anywhere on the body.
To show just how common spider veins are, a group of researchers looked at 1,566 people and found that 84 percent had spider veins — called telangiectasia in medical jargon — on their right legs alone. While they don't usually cause medical problems, they can be eliminated for medical or cosmetic reasons with procedures such as laser treatment and sclerotherapy.
Who Gets Spider Veins?
Spider veins are caused by increased pressure in the veins, Dr. Joseph says. Doctors don’t know exactly why some people develop spider veins and others don’t, but they do know that the tendency to get them is hereditary, and that they’re more common as you get older. It’s also known that people who stand for a long time, such as nurses and teachers, tend to increase the amount of pressure in the veins of the legs and are more likely to develop spider veins, Joseph says.
In addition to the appearance of a patchwork of red and blue veins that you can see through the skin, people with spider veins may also experience:
- Swelling in the legs
- A feeling of heaviness in the legs
- Tiredness in the legs
Lower Your Spider Vein Risk
You may not be able to totally prevent spider veins from appearing, but there are steps you can take to try to lower your risk:
- Relieve some pressure. You can try to lessen the pressure on your legs that can lead to spider veins by keeping your weight down, and by avoiding standing or sitting for long periods. Experts recommend taking a walk every 30 minutes if you have to sit for long periods and avoiding crossing your legs while seated.
- Keep the blood flowing. Exercising your legs by running or walking can increase leg circulation and strengthen your leg muscles.
- Get support. If you’re going to be on your feet, Joseph recommends wearing a lightweight compression stocking, which he says can go a long way towards preventing and managing spider vein symptoms, including swelling. Try a lightweight compression sock with a gradient of 15 or 20 milliliters of mercury (a measure of how much pressure it puts on your veins). You can find these stocking in pharmacies and medical supply stores. “It’s best if you can get a certified stocking fitter to look at your leg and measure you properly,” Joseph says. While you can buy compression stockings over the counter, Joseph doesn’t recommend skipping a trip to the doctor about spider veins — you want to be sure you don’t have another significant vascular problem.
- Prop up your feet. Elevating your legs is another main treatment for spider veins, Joseph says. Your legs must be elevated higher than your heart for best effect.
- Slather on sunscreen. If you have light skin, sun exposure can lead to spider veins on your cheeks or nose, so wear sunscreen to minimize the damage.
- Have any varicose veins treated. Varicose veins are larger, ropy looking veins with nonworking valves, a problem that allows blood to collect inside them. Having your varicose veins treated can reduce the pressure in the legs and prevent the development of additional spider veins, Joseph says.
Effective Treatments for Spider Veins
Two treatment options offer great results. Just keep in mind that these procedures may not be covered by insurance:
- Sclerotherapy. Sclerotherapy is the most common treatment for spider veins, Joseph says. It involves injecting a solution into the vein that forces it to collapse, which stops blood flow. The vein will turn into a scar and fade after a few weeks. Most people who receive this treatment see a 50 to 90 percent improvement.
- Laser treatment. While sclerotherapy is more common, the smaller, fine, reddish spider veins respond best to laser treatment because they’re harder to inject, Joseph says.
Spider veins are mainly a cosmetic issue and can be left alone if they don’t bother you. But if you’re unhappy about the way they look or if they’re painful, you can do something about them.