Do you suffer from leg swelling? If so, you may have chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a condition that affects millions of people in the United States.
Understanding CVI is essential for getting the treatment you need and reducing your symptoms. This article will provide an overview of CVI and its causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Keep reading to learn more!
What is Chronic Venous Insufficiency?
Chronic venous insufficiency is a condition that occurs when the valves in your veins don't work properly. This causes blood to flow backward and pool in your veins. Over time, this can cause the walls of your veins to stretch and become weak. CVI can lead to a host of symptoms, including leg swelling, pain, cramping, skin changes, and ulcers. If left untreated, chronic venous insufficiency can lead to serious health complications.
How common is CVI?
Chronic venous insufficiency is a very common condition. It is estimated that up to 3 million Americans suffer from CVI. The condition affects both men and women, but it is more common in women over the age of 50.
What are the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency?
The most common symptom of chronic venous insufficiency is leg swelling. This is often worst at the end of the day or after standing for long periods of time. Other common symptoms include:
- Aching or heaviness in the legs
- Leg cramps
- Itching or burning sensations in the legs
- Ulcers on the legs that don't heal properly
- Varicose veins
You may also notice skin changes, such as discoloration, a "glassy" texture, and itching. These symptoms usually get worse over time.
What causes CVI?
There are a number of factors that can contribute to chronic venous insufficiency. The most common cause is damage to the valves in your veins. This can be caused by blood clots, pregnancy, obesity, or prolonged standing or sitting. Other risk factors include leg injuries, surgery, and certain medications.
Veins function to return deoxygenated blood back to your heart. This is known as "venous return." In order to prevent the backflow of blood, your veins have a series of one-way valves. This is important because the veins returning to your heart from your legs are fighting against gravity. Venous return is helped by a number of factors, but it is estimated that up to 90% of the venous return from the legs is aided by the action of muscle pumps, with the calf muscle being the most important.*
However, over time, and due to a number of factors like age, injury, genetics, and lifestyle, these valves can become damaged or weakened. This allows blood to flow backward and pool in the veins. This increases the pressure inside the vein and, over time, leads to the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency.
How is CVI diagnosed?
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency, it's important to see a doctor. They will likely ask about your medical history and perform a physical examination. This may involve checking for signs of swelling, skin changes, or ulcers. Your doctor may also order tests to confirm the diagnosis, such as an ultrasound or venogram.
What are the complications of CVI?
If left untreated, chronic venous insufficiency can lead to serious health complications. These include:
- Skin changes: The pooling of blood in your veins can cause the skin around your ankles and legs to thin and turn a reddish-brown color. You may also develop ulcers.
- Blood clots: CVI can increase your risk of developing blood clots. These can be serious or even life-threatening.
- Infection: The open wounds associated with CVI can become infected.
How is Chronic Venous Insufficiency Treated?
While CVI is a lifelong disease, it can be effectively managed and the progression can be slowed with medical treatment. Treatment typically involves a combination of lifestyle changes and compression therapy.
There are a number of lifestyle changes that can help to improve the symptoms of CVI. These include:
- Exercise: Exercise is important for maintaining healthy blood flow. Walking, swimming, and cycling are all good options.
- Elevate your legs: Elevating your legs above the level of your heart for 30 minutes, 2-3 times per day can help to reduce swelling.
- Lose weight: If you are overweight, losing weight can help to reduce the pressure on your veins.
- Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time: Prolonged standing or sitting can worsen the symptoms of CVI. Take breaks often and move around as much as possible.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing: Clothing that is tight around the waist or legs can constrict your veins and worsen symptoms.
Compression therapy is the standard treatment for CVI. Compression therapy involves wearing special stockings or socks that apply pressure to your legs. This pressure helps to improve blood flow and reduce swelling. Compression therapy is typically prescribed for people with mild to moderate CVI. It is important to wear compression garments as directed by your doctor.
There are several different options when it comes to compression therapy. Click here to learn more about how compression therapy contributes to healing and then discuss your options with your doctor to determine which kind of compression product is best for you.
If you have leg swelling or any of the other symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency, make an appointment with your doctor. With early diagnosis and treatment, you can manage your symptoms and reduce your risk of complications.
*Meissner MH. Lower extremity venous anatomy. Semin Intervent Radiol 2005; 22(3): 147-56.
Meissner MH, Moneta G, Burnand K, et al. The hemodynamics and diagnosis of venous disease. J Vasc Surg 2007; 46 (Suppl): 4S-24S.