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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : My doctor says I have venous insufficiency. What does that mean?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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October 09, 2012
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A:

Venous insufficiency means that the veins don’t work properly. Most people develop this condition in their legs. The veins are responsible for draining blood and fluid back to the heart. So people with venous insufficiency usually have symptoms caused by the buildup of fluid in their legs. These symptoms can include:

  • Swollen or painful varicose veins.
  • Swelling (edema) of the foot, ankle or calf. This swelling may get worse if you stand for long periods of time. And it usually improves when you lie down or raise the legs. Swelling may also get worse during a woman’s menstrual cycle.
  • A sense of heaviness.
  • Throbbing, achy or crampy pain.
  • Redness and irritation of the skin. Over time, the skin may get thicker or become darker in color.
  • In more severe cases, skin ulcers may form or the skin may ooze fluid.

Venous insufficiency is very common. Women are affected more than men. The condition is more common as people age or become overweight. In many people, it develops after the veins have been damaged by an injury, surgery or a blood clot.

The treatment of venous insufficiency depends on why it has developed, where it develops, and the symptoms it causes:

  • In mild cases, simply elevating the legs appears to help.
  • Support stockings help to reduce swelling and discomfort. You can buy these at a medical supply store. Custom fit stockings are also available with a prescription from your doctor.
  • A diuretic (water pill) such as hydrochlorothiazide or furosemide will control some of the fluid buildup.
  • Mild steroid creams such as hydrocortisone help to reduce redness and irritation of the skin.
  • Skin ulcers often need careful attention. Special bandages help speed the healing process. You may need antibiotic pills or creams if the ulcers become infected.

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