Compression stockings, also known as compression socks or compression hoses, are used as an initial varicose vein treatment. Varicose veins are blood vessels that have become large and twisted. Compression stockings support blood circulation in the legs by squeezing the leg, most tightly around the ankle and decreasing in pressure as they travel up the legs. These stockings look almost identical to pantyhose, knee-high, or thigh-high stockings and are often used as a non-surgical treatment for varicose veins, as well as for post-surgical support.
Varicose veins typically look like bulging purple or blue cords that wind and twist along the legs. In healthy veins, valves allow blood to pass in one direction and block the backflow of blood. The valves in varicose veins fail to close entirely, causing blood to pool and the veins to become enlarged. Spider veins are similar to varicose veins, but appear much smaller and may present in the face as well as the legs.
Besides their appearance, symptoms of this condition include aching, muscle cramping, a burning sensation in the legs, swelling in the lower legs, itching around the veins, and discomfort after sitting or standing for long periods of time. In some cases, skin ulcers may form around the ankle. The likelihood of developing varicose veins increases with pregnancy, family history of varicose veins, advancing age, being female, obesity, and standing for long periods of time. Compression stockings do not cure varicose veins, but they can help mitigate the symptoms of this condition.
The stockings fit fairly tightly, applying more pressure around the ankle and less pressure towards the knee. This graded pressure encourages the blood to move up the leg toward the heart and helps to prevent blood from accumulating in the lower leg and feet. This reduces swelling, discomfort, and the chances of a blood clot forming. A blood clot, or thrombus, occurs when clotting agents within the blood cause elements of the blood to stick together, or coagulate. While this is an important mechanism in a healthy body, unneeded clots formed by blood stagnation can cause serious health problems, such as the death of tissue, stroke, or pulmonary embolism.
Compression stockings are made of an elastic material and come in several styles and colors. They should be worn every day, all day long, and taken off at night. Though a pharmacist will size the stockings to fit the patient, the socks are tight, so they may need to be tugged fairly hard to pull them over the foot and ankle. This can pose a problem for those with arthritis or other conditions that weaken the hands. Patients who have diabetes, smoke, or have poor circulation should not wear compression stockings.
Varicose veins may also be removed surgically. If the varicose veins are superficial, or close to the surface, they are fairly easy to remove through procedures such as ambulatory phlebectomy, vein stripping, sclerotherapy, laser surgery, or a catheter-assisted surgery. If complications, such as ulcers, arise that require the removal of deeper veins, it may require endoscopic vein surgery. In this surgery, the doctor inserts a camera into the leg to get an image of the offending vein, closes off the vein, and removes it through small incisions in the skin. A doctor may recommend that the patient wear compression stockings after the surgery.