Compression: Steps You Can Take

Veins are part of the body's circulatory system, along with the heart, arteries and capillaries. This amazing system contains an estimated 60,000 miles of vessels that reach trillions of living cells.

The heart is a muscle that pumps about 7,200 quarts of blood in a 24-hour period. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the tiny capillaries throughout the body. The capillaries, body cells exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen and waste products for nutrients. Veins carry the deoxygenated blood back to the heart, which then pumps it to the lungs to release its carbon dioxide and pick up more oxygen. From there, the newly oxygenated blood returns to the heart, and the cycle begins again. This cycle of circulation is essential to sustain life.

Pumping the blood efficiently through the veins in the legs to the heart is a challenge, because by the time the blood reaches the veins, the force of the heartbeat is weak, and blood must fight gravity on its way up the legs.

The body has two important ways to help blood move through the leg veins. The first is called the calf muscle pump. Leg veins are surrounded by powerful calf muscles, which contract and relax as a person walks. This muscle action rhythmically squeezes the veins and acts as a second heart to push venous blood up the legs. The calf muscle pump is effective, and it reaches its full pumping potential after only seven steps.

The second way venous blood is helped back to the heart is by special one-way valves in the veins. With each heartbeat, these valves open to allow blood to flow toward the heart, then close to prevent blood from flowing backward into the lower part of the vein.

Even with the help of the calf muscles and venous valves, blood sometimes still does not move efficiently back to the heart. Instead, the blood begins to pool in the veins--a condition call venous insufficiency. This in turn causes the pressure within these vessels to rise, and vein walls to weaken and stretch and distend. As more blood pools in the veins, distention prevents the one-way valves from coming together properly, and blood flows backward, which makes the situation even worse. At this point, varicose veins can be the unfortunate result.

Varicose Veins

Varicose veins are visibly enlarged veins that are often bluish in color and may appear twisted. They can be painful, or they may cause no discomfort at all. If the deeper veins in the legs are healthy, varicose veins may only be a cosmetic problem. However, a person with varicose veins has a greater chance of developing complications like phlebitis, inflammation of a vein; thrombophlebitis, inflammation of a vein with a blood clot; or deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in a deep vein that can break away, lodge in the lungs and become life threatening. Early symptoms include feelings of tiredness, restlessness, heaviness, and tension in the legs. Some patients experience a tingling sensation or muscle cramps in the calves. Symptoms progress to visible swelling in the feet and varicose veins that either appear for the first time or become enlarged as time progresses.

Varicose Veins and Pregnancy

Text No Indent:There are proven risk factors for developing varicose veins. These include jobs that require prolonged sitting or standing, an inherited weakness of vein walls or vein valves and pregnancy. Pregnancy can aggravate existing varicose veins and make them worse, or it can put enough strain on healthy veins to cause new varicosities in women who have a tendency for them. One third of first pregnancies and fifty percent of subsequent pregnancies lead to varicose veins after giving birth.

During pregnancy, hormonal changes cause vein walls to lose some of their normal elasticity, making them flabby and more likely to distend. In addition, maternal blood volume increases, and the pressure of the uterus on pelvic veins hampers blood flow in leg veins. All the changes of pregnancy increase the likelihood of veins becoming overloaded with blood.

Risk factors that increase your chances of developing varicose veins during pregnancy include:

  • a family history of varicose veins.
  • the presence of some varicose veins before pregnancy.
  • multiple pregnancy.
  • sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time
  • general inactivity or lack of exercise.
  • hot weather.
  • Although you may consider varicose veins to be primarily a cosmetic problem, varicosities are signs of a compromised venous system that can eventually lead to secondary damage and life-long disabilities. In the United States, it is estimated that venous disease accounted for 5 percent of all the circulatory admissions in 1987 and one study found that varicose veins were present in 33 percent of women and in 17 percent of men.

    A Warning about Blood Clots

    A blood clot in the deep veins of the legs, also known as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can be triggered by the slowing down of blood flow in veins, damage to vein walls and a thickening of the blood. All three causes are known as Virchow triad and underlie the reasons why blood clots or DVTs form.

    A DVT can break away from the vein, travel to vital organs, and become a life-threatening embolism. The danger of an embolism depends on its size and whether it lodges in a blood vessel of a vital organ, like the heart, lungs or brain. If an embolism flows along with the blood through the heart, but gets stuck in a blood vessel to the lungs, it becomes a pulmonary embolism. It is estimated, from hospital statistics in the United States, that more than one million cases of DVT are diagnosed each year with about 50,000 deaths annually. Although DVT's can occur with no symptoms, symptoms for a DVT can include:

  • pain and tenderness in one leg.
  • swelling in one leg.
  • increased warmth and redness in one leg.
  • shortness of breath and fainting.
  • pain in the chest.
  • Economy Class Syndrome or Traveler's Thrombosis

    Economy Class Syndrome or Traveler's Thrombosis is really a blood clot that forms in the leg veins, often after a long period of inactivity such as during long distance flights.

    It is estimated, from hospital statistics in the United States, that more than one million cases of DVT are diagnosed each year with about 50,000 deaths annually.

    In October 2000, Economy Class Syndrome became a health concern worldwide when a healthy, 28 year-old woman, Emma Christoffersen, with a coach seat assignment on the 20-hour flight between Sydney and London collapsed after a long-distance flight. She died from a pulmonary embolism.

    DVTs are not limited to only air travelers. David Bloom, a reporter for NBC, died from a pulmonary embolism. Doctors suspected that the hours that he spent sitting cramped in the armored military-recovery vehicle without much movement caused the DVT that eventually killed him.

    Playing Your Part

    Although varicose veins, blood clots, and other vein problems are bad news, the good news is that you can prevent them with a few simple lifestyle changes. Making these changes a permanent part of your life is essential for maximizing the long-term health of your veins and your legs. It also is important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and treatment options.

    Six easy steps to better blood flow:

    1. Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time. Exercise, especially walking, contracts and relaxes the calf muscles. The regular contraction and relaxation of these muscles alternately squeezes and releases veins to act as a second heart that improves blood flow.

    2. When you must sit or stand for a long time, rock the feet up and down. This exercise simulates the beneficial effects of walking and promotes venous circulation.

    3. Elevate your feet above the level of the heart several times each day to help venous blood fight the effects of gravity.

    4. Avoid excessive heat such as sunbathing and excessively hot baths. Heat dilates veins, and blood tends to pool in dilated veins.

    5. Control your body weight since excess weight burdens the entire circulatory system.

    6. Wear medical compression socks or stockings.

    Compression Therapy Really Works

    Compression therapy means wearing socks and stockings that are specially designed to support your veins and to increase circulation in your legs. Effective compression is measured and graduated strongest at the ankle and decreasing up the leg. This design moves blood along in a healthy and efficient way. Compression socks and stockings are most effective when used in conjunction with a regular exercise program, such as walking.

    Offer comfortable compression socks and stockings that:

  • support stretched or distended veins.
  • help venous valves close properly.
  • prevent blood from pooling in the veins.
  • speed up a sluggish blood flow.
  • force fluid out of swollen legs and ankles and back into circulation
  • last a long time, are versatile, and are comfortable to wear.
  • Compression provides the extra support that vein walls need, so they don't become stretched or distended by stagnant blood. This helps vein valves open and close effectively, so blood moves through the veins without pooling. When blood flows efficiently through healthy veins, the risk of varicose veins and blood clots or DVTs decreases.

    There are several contraindications to wearing medical compression stockings and it is important to check with your doctor before deciding that medical compression stockings are for you.

    This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of HME Business.

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