Swollen legs can signal vein disease

by Hennepin Healthcare

The circulatory system is a busy, complex one that relies on some basic “plumbing” concepts to deliver blood throughout our bodies. Charged with bringing deoxygenated blood back to the heart for recycling, healthy veins are an important part of this system but when they aren’t working properly, can cause a variety of problems. A swollen leg may be one of the first signs of trouble.


Going deeper
A swollen leg can be a symptom of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – the formation of blood clot (thrombus) in a vein that’s located deep inside the body. This can occur in other places in the body, but it’s more common in the legs. In addition to swelling, DVT can cause symptoms including pain, warmth, redness or discoloration, distension or enlargement of superficial veins (the ones that can be seen just below the skin).

Treatment of DVT has evolved from blood-thinning medications alone to methods employing newer technologies aimed at removing the clot faster and safer, such as Catheter-Directed Thrombolysis (CDT) or endovascular thrombectomy where a small specially designed catheter is used to macerate and remove clots using pressurized saline (a technology developed here in Minneapolis, MN)– all of which are available through Whittier Vein Care.

Dr. Derrick Chu

Dr. Derrick Chu

“Removing these clots by inserting a catheter and delivering clot-busting medication directly into the affected area not only maximize its effect – it also keeps the medication from going to other parts of the body where it’s not needed,” explains Dr. Derrick Chu of Whittier Vein Care.

DVT can also be a precursor to pulmonary embolism, which is a life-threatening condition.

“When pieces of a DVT break loose travel to the lungs and block off the arteries of the lungs, pulmonary embolism can occur,” warns Dr. Chu. The symptoms of pulmonary embolism include shortness of breath, pain, and coughing up blood.

“If this happens, immediate medical intervention is needed.”

Closer to the surface
Tiny valves inside healthy veins keep the flow of deoxygenated blood heading in the right direction – back to the heart. When these valves aren’t working properly, blood can actually backflow in the veins and cause bulging or swelling. While only medical imaging can view this process in deep veins, it’s evident in the legs when increased venous pressure and venous insufficiency create enlarged, rope-like blue or purplish veins referred to as varicose veins.  Although varicose veins may signal risks or the presence of other circulatory problems, they are not likely to be life-threatening; in fact, for many they are mainly of cosmetic concern.

“Varicose veins can cause significant discomfort including swelling, achiness, pain, itchiness, heaviness, tiredness or restlessness,” points out Dr. Chu. “And severe varicose veins can also lead to skin changes such as rashes, redness, or sores that may be difficult to heal.”

Treatments for varicose veins include ambulatory phlebectomy, sclerotherapy, and endovenous laser ablation (EVLA), all of which are available at Whittier Vein Care. If the varicose veins develop sores, specialists at HCMC’s Center for Wound Healing are consulted for focused, intensive wound healing techniques.


Dr. Adam R. Johnson, Medical Director of HCMC's Center for Wound Healing

Dr. Adam R. Johnson, Medical Director of HCMC’s Center for Wound Healing

Whittier Vein Care and the Interventional Radiology Services at HCMC provide comprehensive evaluation and treatment of a wide range of venous diseases.

When caring for complicated cases like ulcers, non-healing wounds, or severely debilitating limb swelling, Whittier Vein Care collaborates with qualified and experienced professionals at HCMC’s Center for Wound Healing and Lymphedema Specialty Treatment Service to provide the best possible patient-centered care. For more information, go to hcmc.org.