Varicose Veins During Pregnancy
The process of having a baby includes a lot of unexpected side-effects. You sign up for a beautiful, brand new baby, and suddenly you’re accosted by a storm of unanticipated aches, pains, and body changes.
For instance, you might be wondering why in the world those blueish-purple, twisted, bulging veins are popping up all over your pregnant legs. As if you didn’t already have enough body changes to worry about while growing a baby, now you have these! What are they, anyway?
They are called varicose veins, and they affect between 10-20% of all pregnancies (so yes, you’re one of the “lucky” few). While varicose veins usually show up solely on the legs, they can also manifest in other, rather... uncomfortable, places: the vulva (referred to as vulvar varicosities) and anus (referred to as hemorrhoids).
Varicose veins usually aren’t painful, but they can sometimes be uncomfortable or itchy. Mostly, they’re just incredibly unsightly to look at.
But what causes this roadmap of bumpy veins to begin with? And what can you do about them?
In this article:
- What Causes Varicose Veins During Pregnancy?
- When Do Varicose Veins Typically Appear During Pregnancy?
- Can I Prevent Varicose Veins During Pregnancy?
- What Can I Do To Minimize Varicose Veins When I’m Pregnant?
- Will Varicose Veins Go Away After Pregnancy?
- When To Call A Doctor About Varicose Veins During Pregnancy
What Causes Varicose Veins During Pregnancy?
Like stretch marks, varicose veins tend to be hereditary. In other words: if your mom got them, you’re likely to get them as well. But what creates them in the first place?
In essence, varicose veins are a result of a bucket-load of pregnancy-induced changes in your body, all compiled into the perfect storm that guarantees really bad things for the veins in your legs.
To start with, a woman’s body produces 50% more blood volume during pregnancy. That alone creates extra pressure on your veins. But, couple that with the fact that the added pressure from your growing uterus makes it hard for the blood from your legs to flow back up to the pelvic region, and your poor veins are suddenly under a whole lot of strain.
Finally, the hormone prolactin, which is designed to loosen up your ligaments in preparation for birth, relaxes your veins and allows them to dilate and expand—resulting in larger-than-normal, swollen veins.
When Do Varicose Veins Typically Appear During Pregnancy?
Varicose veins can make their debut at any point in pregnancy, although they tend to start off fairly small and get larger as your baby grows. Because the weight of your expanding uterus is one of the causes of varicose veins, it’s not surprising that they worsen as the uterus gets heavier.
If you’ve had a baby in the past, your varicose veins are likely to show up faster than they did the first time around. In fact, with each subsequent pregnancy they will probably expand faster than they did during your previous go-around. I know, this isn’t exactly the flattering news you multi-time moms wanted to hear. I’m sorry.
Can I Prevent Varicose Veins During Pregnancy?
Because varicose veins tend to be hereditary (thanks, mom!), there’s really no way to prevent them altogether. However, the good news is that there are ways to minimize them while you’re pregnant, even if you can’t completely avoid them (see below for the list of do’s and don’ts).
The earlier you get started on the following varicose veins minimization techniques, the more likely you’ll be to prevent them from becoming severe later in pregnancy. This is particularly helpful if you’ve had varicose veins in a previous pregnancy, since you’ll be particularly susceptible to experiencing worsened varicose veins early on in pregnancy.
What Can I Do To Minimize Varicose Veins When I’m Pregnant?
For those of the childbearing population who are genetically destined to get varicose veins, it comes as a small relief to know that there are some things we can do to minimize the discomfort and unpleasantness.
- Wear compression stockings. These are not just regular old hosiery, they are deliberately designed to help pump the blood in your legs back up your body. Your doctor or midwife should be able to prescribe the correct weight for you.
- Move frequently. If you sit or stand in one place for long periods of time, the blood will pool in your legs, causing the veins to stretch and bulge even more.
- Break the leg-crossing habit. Try not to cross your legs, since doing so will prevent your blood from circulating properly.
- Avoid tight clothes. Don’t wear anything tight or constrictive, especially around your waist or pelvic area. Once again, your goal is optimal blood flow.
- Elevate your feet. Do this when you sit or lay down, in order to get the blood flowing back toward your heart. This will also help reduce swelling in your legs and feet, which is particularly helpful because swelling can worsen your varicose veins.
- Lay on your left side. There’s a major vein that carries blood from your feet & legs to your heart, called the inferior vena cava (IVC), that runs down your back. In order to reduce the pressure of your heavy uterus crushing your IVC, be sure to lay on your side; preferably your left, since that is the side farthest away from your IVC.
- Don’t wear high heels. Of course, unless you’re the Duchess of Cambridge, why would you be wearing high heels during pregnancy anyway?? Ouch! But it’s not just discomfort that should keep you away from the heels during pregnancy: wearing flats or other low-heeled shoes works your calf muscles more than high heels, resulting in more blood flow from your legs to your heart.
- Swim or walk. Both of these exercises are gentle enough for pregnancy yet efficient at getting the blood moving from your legs back up to your heart. Exercising in water during pregnancy is particularly beneficial, so go swimming as frequently as you can.
- Watch your weight gain. While this absolutely does NOT mean you should go on a diet or try to lose weight, you should be conscious that the heavier you get, the more pressure your body will be putting on those varicose veins. So be sure to eat healthy and exercise regularly.
- Vitamin C. Speaking of eating healthy, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C. Your body needs vitamin C in order to create collagen and elastin, which help repair and maintain the health of your blood vessels.
The best way to prevent hemorrhoids (aka, varicose veins in your butt), is to avoid bearing down when having a bowel movement. Pregnant women are more susceptible to constipation (yay), which then leads to hemorrhoids due to too much straining on the toilet.
So be sure to get eat enough fiber, and consider getting a prenatal vitamin that doesn’t contain additional iron, since sometimes constipation is linked to higher levels of iron intake.
Hemorrhoids also tend to pop up after having a baby, because of the strenuous pressure associated with pushing a baby out. In order to prevent that, try to avoid “purple pushing,” (this is when you push on command, or count to 10 while pushing), and instead allow your body to signal when it’s time to push. Your body’s fetal ejection reflex (FER) can get your baby out with minimal pushing on your part.
Will Varicose Veins Go Away After Pregnancy?
Great news, yes they will! Well, the veins themselves won’t go away (you had them before you got pregnant, and you will certainly want them afterwards, too!), but they will diminish in size and no longer be the engorged, puffy, purple bulges they are now.
You should be aware that it can take anywhere from 3 to 12 months for them to diminish completely, so don’t get too impatient for them to go back to normal size immediately. If you begin to get antsy about them going back to their original size, just visualize the fact that as soon as the weight of your uterus begins to shrink, so will your varicose veins.
On rare occasions, you’ll have a couple veins that don’t subside sufficiently after pregnancy. In that case, you may begin to consider getting them surgically removed. But remember to give your body enough time to recover before resorting to surgery, because they will usually go away all on their own, and you don’t want to have an unnecessary medical procedure done if you can avoid it.
When To Call A Doctor About Varicose Veins During Pregnancy
It’s a good idea to let your doctor or midwife know as soon as you think you have varicose veins. They will be able to properly diagnose them (since varicose veins are sometimes confused with spider veins or visible veins) and even prescribe the correct compression stockings for you.
Your doctor will also likely keep an eye out for something called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a blood clot deep in the body. While DVT is not particularly pregnancy-related, varicose veins are often associated with DVT, which is why your doctor will probably want to err on the side of caution and be sure to keep an eye on them.
If your varicose veins are painful or achy, absolutely be sure to tell your doctor or midwife so they can help you in any way they possibly can.
The fantastic news is that you’re still getting that beautiful new baby you signed up for… but it does come after all of the unexpected undesirables of pregnancy.
Office On Women's Health, Varicose veins and spider veins, March 2019.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Skin Conditions During Pregnancy, October 2018.
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Vulvar varicosities: diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, June 2017.
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Do Not Disturb: The Importance of Privacy in Labor, Summer 2014.
- Laura Ohlman