The burdens of pregnancy are many for the expectant mother. In addition to all the normal demands of daily living, which often includes a full-time job on top of taking care of a home and family, there is a special need to eat a healthy, balanced diet, to get proper exercise and for plenty of rest. But even for the expecting mom who is doing an excellent job of keeping all the balls of daily life in the air while also giving herself the tender loving care she deserves, there are still times when her legs are going to feeling tired and achy.
The circulatory system in our bodies has two kinds of blood vessels: arteries and veins. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Arteries have thick walls which actually help the heart to pump the blood by gently contracting with each heartbeat.
Veins are the thin-walled blood vessels which return blood back to the heart. The veins have valves that open when the blood flows past them, then close after each heartbeat to stop the blood from flowing backwards in the vein. These valves are especially important in the legs. When weak or damaged valves allow blood to flow backward, it collects at the bottom of the leg. This excess blood increases pressure in the vein and causes that tired aching feeling in your legs. That increased pressure, over time, can eventually stretch and enlarge your veins. These stretched and twisted veins are what we call varicose veins. The smaller veins close to the skin’s surface may be bluish, appearing knotted or like a spider-web.
While anyone at any age can develop varicose veins, the changes that a woman’s body undergoes during pregnancy increase the chances that varicose veins may occur. Some health experts have estimated that about 40% of women will be affected by varicose veins during pregnancy. One reason is that pregnancy causes hormonal changes in a woman’s body, one of which results in the vein walls relaxing slightly and stretching out. While this can help in increasing blood flow, important for the developing baby, it can also increase the likelihood that varicose veins may form. That likelihood is also increased by the additional weight a woman adds during pregnancy, weight that puts greater pressure on the veins of the expecting mom’s legs.
Other factors that can increase the risk of developing varicose veins include activities that require you to spend long periods of time standing or sitting. Such inactivity makes it easier for blood and other fluids to pool in your legs, again increasing the pressure on the veins and causing additional stretching of veins and possible damage to the valves within the veins.
Some women, of course, may already have varicose veins prior to pregnancy. There are numerous things that can lead to the development of varicose veins unrelated to pregnancy. Excessive weight, heavy use of alcohol and lack of exercise can all help contribute to the problem, as can smoking. Becoming pregnant will usually aggravate and worsen the condition when varicose veins already exist.
In some cases, however, there is simply an inherited tendency to have weaker vein walls and valve problems. Often, if a woman’s mother developed varicose veins during pregnancy, there is a good chance that her daughter will as well.
The good news for many women is that the varicose veins that develop during pregnancy return to normal after the baby is born. As the conditions that led to the varicose veins disappear after giving birth, so too, in most cases, will the varicose veins themselves. There is a greater chance, however, of the problem disappearing if there are steps taken during pregnancy, as outlined below, to minimize both the occurrence and severity of varicose veins.
For a woman who has an inherited tendency for thin-walled veins or weak valves within the veins of the legs, there is of course a much higher chance that the varicose veins that have developed will not go away once the pregnancy is over. In any case, it is always worth the effort of taking steps to try and minimize the seriousness and permanence of varicose veins that occur during pregnancy.
One of the easiest actions to take to help reduce the risk of developing varicose veins during pregnancy is to wear high-quality compression stockings. Maternity pantyhose like Jobst UltraSheer or Mediven Comfort provide gradient compression, providing the highest level of pressure at the ankle and gradually decreasing the pressure up the leg. This design gently compresses the leg muscles, squeezing the veins, and helping to push the blood back toward the heart.
Regular, sensible exercise is another means of minimizing varicose vein risk. Simply walking regularly helps to strengthen the leg muscles, providing more support for the veins in the legs and helping, through the compression of the muscles as your walk, to move the blood out of the leg and back toward the lungs and heart. Your doctor can offer advice on exercise that is appropriate and healthful during pregnancy.
It is also good advice to avoid long periods of standing or sitting. The lack of activity allows blood to pool in the veins of the leg, increasing the pressure on both the veins and the valves within the veins and thus increasing the risk of varicose veins forming. If you will be facing a prolonged period of standing or sitting, break it up with regular periods of exercise, either taking a short walk or, at the very minimum, doing some foot exercises, such as flexing your toes, rotating your feet at the ankles and doing toe lifts with your heels on the floor. All of these will help keep the blood circulating better in your feet and legs.
While varicose veins generally have few if any immediate health implications, they are something most women wish to avoid during pregnancy. Compression stockings, regular exercise, and keeping active can help minimize the risk. Talk to your physician about the problem and see what he or she has to recommend.