Thin blue lines

Posted: July 03, 2013

VARICOSE VEINS are more than just ugly. They can be the reason for heaviness and aches in your legs, even if you are in great shape.

Summer Sanders, former U.S. Olympic swimmer, gold medalist, fitness enthusiast and busy mother of two, was shocked to learn that hers were the reason for some bothersome symptoms.

"My legs were achy and heavy, especially after a long day. I thought it was just from living an active lifestyle and, you know, getting older," the 40-year-old Sanders told me in a phone interview recently. "I mean, really, here I am healthy as I can be - and an Olympic athlete!"

Because of her experience, Sanders was inspired to join the Rethink Varicose Veins campaign (, a national initiative that's raising awareness about some potential health risks.

It turns out that varicose veins aren't just cosmetic.

"Many people don't realize that varicose veins are a sign of a more serious problem called chronic venous insufficiency," said Dr. Charles Dietzek, a vascular surgeon in Voorhees, N.J. Left untreated, he said, they can cause pain, swelling, leg fatigue, skin discoloration, abnormal skin texture and in severe cases blood clots and ulcers.

It's estimated that 30 million Americans have varicose veins, yet only about 10 percent seek treatment.

The good news is that your doctor can teach you some strategies to slow down the development of varicose veins and relieve discomfort. Wearing compression stockings is one (and they've come a long way, baby). Resting with your feet up (above your heart) for 15 minutes, three or four times a day, can be helpful, too.

A gentle 30-minute walk or swim can also offer relief. Another exercise your doctor may recommend is to lie on your back and bicycle your legs, extending one leg straight up to the sky and bending the other leg.

If your varicose veins are painful or getting worse, or if putting your legs up doesn't help, you should definitely call your doctor. A fever, leg sores or a sudden increase in pain or swelling are other reasons to get yourself an appointment.

When varicose veins require medical treatment, technological advances now allow most patients to be treated right in a doctor's office, Dietzek said. The whole process takes 20 to 30 minutes, and patients are up and walking afterward. Insurance often covers the procedure.

Said Sanders: "I say to my girlfriends, 'If you can get your hair highlighted, you have plenty of time to come in and get this taken care of.' "

As summer gets into full swing, think about coming to terms with your varicose veins, and stop the silent suffering and covering up.

Kimberly Garrison is a wellness coach and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia. Her column appears Wednesdays.

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