Venous insufficiency is a common leg vein disease affecting the vein health of the leg. It happens when tiny valves inside leg veins stop working properly, which allows blood to flow back down into the lower legs. The condition causes ankle and foot swelling that progress up the lower leg. Venous insufficiency can cause other symptoms that can be painful or even debilitating.
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) may affect up to 20 percent of all adults, according to the Vascular Disease Foundation. These vein problems get more common with age. By the age of 50, nearly 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men have some type of vein disease.
But is venous insufficiency a life-threatening condition? The answer is complicated – CVI itself cannot cause death, but complications associated with chronic venous insufficiency can.
Venous insufficiency is a leg vein disease affecting the veins of the circulatory system. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the far reaches of the body, where cells use the oxygen and nutrients in blood to function. As they work, body cells create carbon dioxide and toxins. Veins carry the carbon dioxide and toxins away.
Arteries work with the help of gravity to bring blood down to the feet. Veins must work against gravity to bring blood back up towards the heart. Tiny valves in the veins open and close in between heartbeats to trap blood in small segments in the veins.
These valves can fail and allow blood to seep back downwards into the lower legs in between heartbeats, a condition doctors refer to as reflux. Blood clots can also block veins to cause blood to reflux, or flow backward, and accumulate in the lower legs.
The veins in the lower legs respond to the accumulation of blood by enlarging and bloating. Veins near the surface of the skin may become unsightly varicose veins or spider veins.
Chronic venous insufficiency may not always cause symptoms, but when it does, symptoms may include swelling of the lower leg, feelings of heaviness or fullness of the leg, restlessness, fatigue, burning, itching and muscle cramping – all of which are not life-threatening.
Complications of venous insufficiency may be life-threatening, though. The blood that accumulates in the lower legs contains toxins that can damage tissue. To make matters worse, the accumulation of old blood prevents new blood from flowing through tissues well, and this can cause these tissues to break down. Painful sores, known as stasis ulcers, may develop on the lower legs. Because of poor circulation, these sores are vulnerable to life-threatening infections.
Poor circulation also promotes the development of blood clots, which can break free and travel to other parts of the body. The clots associated with CVI can be life-threatening when they travel to the lungs, a dangerous condition known as pulmonary emboli.
Fortunately, vein treatment can resolve venous insufficiency before dangerous complications develop. For more information about venous insufficiency and its complications, talk to a doctor or vein surgeon.