Venous insufficiency is a very common condition resulting from decreased blood flow from the leg veins up to the heart, with pooling of blood in the veins. Normally, one-way valves in the veins keep blood flowing toward the heart, against the force of gravity. When the valves become weak and don't close properly, they allow blood to flow backward, a condition called reflux. Veins that have lost their valve effectiveness, become elongated, rope-like, bulged, and thickened. These enlarged, swollen vessels are known as varicose veins and are a direct result of increased pressure from reflux. A common cause of varicose veins in the legs is reflux in a thigh vein called the great saphenous, which leads to pooling in the visible varicose vein below.
Chronic venous disease of the legs is one of the most common conditions affecting people of all races. Approximately half of the U.S. population has venous disease--50 to 55% of women and 40 to 45% of men. Of these, 20 to 25% of the women and 10 to 15% of men will have visible varicose veins. Varicose veins affect 1 out of 2 people age 50 and older, and 15 to 25% of all adults.
Symptoms caused by venous insufficiency and varicose veins include aching pain, easily tired legs, and leg heaviness, all of which worsen as the day goes on. Many people find they need to sit down in the afternoon and elevate their legs to relieve these symptoms. In more severe cases, venous insufficiency and reflux can cause darkening of the skin and wounds that may be very difficult to treat. One percent of adults over age 60 have chronic wounds known as ulcers.
People who have venous insufficiency can have symptoms even without visible varicose veins. The symptoms are caused by pressure on nerves by dilated veins.
An interventional radiologist will use ultrasound to assess the venous anatomy, vein valve function, and venous blood flow changes, which can assist in diagnosing venous insufficiency. The doctor will map the great saphenous vein and examine the deep and superficial venous systems to determine if the veins are open and to pinpoint any reflux. This will help determine if the patient is a candidate for a minimally invasive treatment, known as vein ablation.
This minimally invasive treatment is an outpatient procedure performed using imaging for guidance. After applying local anesthetic to the vein, the interventional radiologist inserts a thin catheter, about the size of a strand of spaghetti, into the vein and guides it up the great saphenous vein in the thigh. Then laser or radiofrequency energy is applied to the inside of the vein. This heats the vein and seals the vein closed.
Reflux within the great saphenous vein leads to pooling in the visible varicose veins below. When the great saphenous vein is closed, the twisted and varicosed branch veins, which are close to the skin, shrink and improve in appearance. Once the diseased vein is closed, other healthy veins take over to carry blood from the leg, re-establishing normal flow.