All of a sudden, your once-smooth legs have bulging, visible veins. Perhaps your nose and cheeks are spattered with fine red lines that resembled a spider web.
If you’ve recently seen visible veins pop up on your legs or face, you’re not alone. Varicose veins, frequently seen on the lower legs, are associated with a litany of co-factors that may surprise you. And spider veins, a less severe type of visible vein, can pop up quite suddenly on your face or other parts of your body. But what might be the cause of these suddenly-showing veins? And is there anything you can do to reverse the trend?
Why are my veins so visible?
In 2017, approximately 1 in 4 adults had varicose veins, which often present as bluish-greenish bulging, twisted, and raised veins on the legs (1). There are two main divisions of blood vessels in the body: arteries take blood away from the heart and veins return that blood to the heart.
Because of the effects of gravity, it takes extra effort to get blood back to the heart from the extremities (like the legs). The body addresses this issue with one-way valves designed to prevent blood from flowing backward. When they don’t work correctly, however, the blood can flow in reverse in a process called venous reflux, which can cause the veins to appear bulging, twisted, or tortuous (2).
Spider veins are another common form of visible veins. They’re not as large or as bulging as varicose veins, and they tend to appear on different parts of the body. Many describe them as looking like a spider web or a sunburst. They’re thin and often show up as purplish or red in coloration. Spider veins are associated with the backup of blood as well but are usually smaller and more manageable than varicose veins (3).
What causes veins to be more visible?
You might see an increase of visible veins if you recently started a job that requires you to stand for long periods of time. Research has shown that standing (or even sitting) for too long can cause blood to pool in the legs (4). The increased quantity of blood then leads to increased pressure in the veins, which then stretches the vein. When this happens, there’s a chance that the valves will become weaker from the stretching. That allows blood to pool in the extremities, leading to varicose veins.
If you find yourself in a position where you’re on your feet for long periods, consider taking a 15-minute break now and then to elevate your feet.
There are some factors beyond control for varicose and spider veins, like aging and genetics. Consider your family members: do they have visible veins themselves? There’s evidence that having a close family member with visible veins increases your risk (5). Another factor outside of your control is aging. As we age, the veins naturally lose elasticity and stop working as well as they did before.
Studies have shown that smoking cigarettes significantly contributes to the risk of visible veins (6) because of its association with chronic venous insufficiency, which is evidenced by inadequate blood flow back to the heart (7). As a result, blood builds up in the extremities, and because smoking decreases circulation, the blood vessels swell. All of this can contribute to spider veins popping up in unwanted areas (8).
If spider veins appear on your face, it’s possible that sun exposure is to blame. There’s evidence that exposure to UV light breaks down collagen on the face. With the breakdown of collagen, your tissue loses elasticity; the decrease in pressure around the facial veins can cause them to be more visible (9).
When you’re pregnant, your blood volume increases significantly to provide for the growing fetus. At the same time, the expanding uterus starts to put pressure on the vena cava, which is a major vein that transports blood from the legs and feet upward.
This confluence of increased blood in the body and decreased blood flow back to the heart can result in varicose veins. Also, a hormone called progestin, which increases during pregnancy, can also contribute to varicose and spider veins by dilating (opening) the veins more than usual (10).
Among other interventions to decrease the risk of varicose veins, the American Pregnancy Association recommends getting exercise, avoiding standing for too long, and reducing sodium intake.
Other risk factors (11) for visible veins include:
- Being overweight – although it’s not usually a sole cause, extra weight in the body can increase pressure on the lower extremities, which can weaken valves and stretch veins.
- Leg injury – an injury or surgery can damage your veins and prevent them from working as well as they had previously.
- Lack of exercise – regular movement can increase circulation in the body, thereby making it less likely that blood will pool in the legs.
How to get rid of or minimize visible veins
If you’ve recently experienced felt dumbfounded at the emergence of visible veins on your body, there’s no need to panic. Although it’s always great to make changes to your lifestyle, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more, and taking a break from standing, there are times when varicose veins are more easily treatable by a professional.
Those plagued by pesky spider veins need not fear. A single treatment of sclerotherapy can clear spider veins up to 70% to 80% (12). Sclerotherapy works by injecting an irritant into the veins and causes them to scar up and block the flow of blood. In some cases, a numbing agent is used to prevent some mild discomfort.
These tight-fitting socks can help with varicose veins by physically preventing blood from pooling in the extremities in the first place (13).
The general idea behind ablation therapies is that they destroy the venous tissue, causing your body to reroute to other, healthier veins. Specialists can do this with radiofrequency, which directs infrared energy into the vein via a catheter (14).
It might sound intense, but endovenous laser therapy (EVLT), is a relatively minor procedure that usually only requires general anesthesia. In EVLT, lasers directed at the wall of the vein in question cause occlusion of the vein, a type of scarring that prevents blood from returning to (and pooling in) the vein (15).
There are many reasons you might be experiencing a sudden onset of visible veins. If you’re worried that some of your recent lifestyle changes have triggered varicose veins, it’s a good idea to speak to your physician.