Aromatherapy A-Z: Varicose Veins

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted, painful veins that have filled with an abnormal amount of blood. They are quite common, affecting approximately 1 in 3 people (particularly women). They usually appear on the legs and feet but can also occur on other parts of the body.

What are varicose veins?

Arteries have strong muscular walls that expand and contract to pump oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body. Once oxygen has been delivered to other parts of the body, the veins transport the deoxygenated blood back to the heart. Veins are less muscular than arteries and do not primarily function in a contractile manner. They rely on a series of tiny one-way valves which open and close to let the blood through and prevent it from flowing backwards and pooling in the lower extremities.

Sometimes the vein walls can become stretched and lose their elasticity, causing the valves to weaken. If the valves are weakened or damaged, they can allow the blood to flow back and collect in the vein - causing it to swell and become enlarged (varicose). This restricts the adequate flow of nutrients and oxygen to the tissues and the removal of wastes, resulting in the vein turning purple/blue in colour and becoming lumpy, distended and twisted over time. Symptoms include the legs feeling hot and heavy, sensitive to pressure, aching, throbbing, swollen ankles and feet, cramps (often at night) and itchy, dry skin over the affected area. The legs may also feel restless and tire more easily.

What causes varicose veins?

Various factors can increase the risk of developing varicose veins - from long periods of standing or sitting still, heavy lifting, obesity, poor diet, consumption of alcohol or spicy foods, insufficient liquid intake and lack of exercise, through to extremes of temperature, poor circulation, old age, prolonged bed rest, genetic predisposition, gender and pregnancy.

Research indicates that women are more prone to varicose veins than men, as female hormones are thought to relax the vein walls, making the valves more likely to leak.

Other contributing factors could be wearing tight clothing, high heels or other unsuitable footwear. Strenuous physical exertion or injuries can also damage valves or cause blood clots that destroy valves and impair circulation. As is so often the case, advanced cases of varicose veins are usually caused by a combination of these factors.

Treating varicose veins

Treatment isn’t always required unless the veins are causing discomfort or other complications. Initial conventional treatment might include using compression stockings (if suitable), regular exercise (walking is considered one of the best options), elevating the legs when resting or sleeping and avoiding standing up for long periods of time. If further treatment is required, you will be referred to a vascular specialist who will advise on the various options, which may include surgery (ligation and stripping) to remove the varicose vein).

When treating varicose veins, the factors that cause weaknesses in the venous system all need to be considered, and a holistic approach is required for true and consistent progress. As with most cases, preventing a weakness from getting worse is the best course of action. Supplementing the diet with Vitamins D, E, and C is often indicated, as is increasing the intake of garlic – which is a circulatory tonic and natural blood thinner

Using essential oils to treat varicose veins

Aromatherapy can be a huge help in tonifying the veins and stimulating stagnant blood flow and can be used on its own or in conjunction with other medical treatments. Regular massage of the legs and feet can be beneficial in preventing and improving the condition. Massage should always be above the affected area of the vein, never below it, as this increases pressure on the damaged area. Massage should not be used in advanced cases as the vein walls are too fragile to take any pressure.

Cypress is one of the most important essential oils due to its astringent action and its tonic effect on the circulation. Its diuretic action can also help with oedema (fluid retention) that often accompanies varicose veins as a result of poor circulation and lymphatic congestion.

Juniperberry essential oil has similar properties to Cypress - so one or the other should be included in your blend.

Lavender essential oil is a circulatory tonic and helps to ease the discomfort and pain of inflammation.

Lemon essential oil is the third effective addition which has a tonic effect on the circulation as well as being an additional anti-inflammatory in relation to excess acidity.

Lavender and Cypress can be used to great effect in a warm bath (make sure the water isn't too hot as this could increase inflammation). Try 10 drops of Lavender and 5 drops of Cypress in 20ml of Bath Oil or Bath & Shower Gel. Showering the legs with cool/cold water after the warm bath will also help to stimulate circulation.

After a bath or shower carefully massage in the following cream. 50ml Moisturising Lotion with 10 drops of Lavender, 8 drops of Cypress and 2 drops of Lemon. If the legs are hot over the affected areas, you can also add 2 drops of German Chamomile to the blend. Used regularly this should help to ease discomfort and tone weak circulation. Regular massage with gentle pressure should also act as a tonic. Always massage above the affected area and in a direction towards the heart (see additional notes above).

If you can't take a bath you could also use the essential oils in alternate hot and cold compresses to stimulate circulation and help soothe pain and inflammation. Add 5 drops of your essential oil blend to a litre of hot or cold water. Soak a clean cloth in the water, wring out and place over the affected area. Do the hot compress first, followed by the cold compress and keep the legs elevated for 20 minutes.

Other tips to help venous flow are to rest the legs higher than the head for at least 20 minutes 2-3 times daily - this also speedily reduces discomfort. Gentle exercise including yoga, swimming, pilates and regular brisk walking are also a vital part of improving the long-term prognosis. Jogging, running, aerobics or other forms of exercise that involve repeated impact are best avoided.

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Joannah Metcalfe
Consultant Aromatherapist

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