Treatment can be either conservative or active. Active treatments can be divided into surgical and non-surgical treatments. Newer methods including endovenous laser treatment, radiofrequency ablation and foam sclerotherapy appear to work as well as surgery for varices of the greater saphenous vein.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) produced clinical guidelines in July 2013 recommending that all people with symptomatic varicose veins (C2S) and worse should be referred to a vascular service for treatment. Conservative treatments such as support stockings should not be used unless treatment was not possible.
The symptoms of varicose veins can be controlled to an extent with the following:
- Elevating the legs often provides temporary symptomatic relief.
- Advice about regular exercise sounds sensible but is not supported by any evidence.
- The wearing of graduated compression stockings with variable pressure gradients (Class II or III) has been shown to correct the swelling, nutritional exchange, and improve the microcirculation in legs affected by varicose veins. They also often provide relief from the discomfort associated with this disease. Caution should be exercised in their use in patients with concurrent arterial disease.
- The wearing of intermittent pneumatic compression devices have been shown to reduce swelling and increase circulation.
- Diosmin/hesperidin and other flavonoids.
- Anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin can be used as part of treatment for superficial thrombophlebitis along with graduated compression hosiery – but there is a risk of intestinal bleeding. In extensive superficial thrombophlebitis, consideration should be given to anti-coagulation, thrombectomy, or sclerotherapy of the involved vein.
- Topical gel application helps in managing symptoms related to varicose veins such as inflammation, pain, swelling, itching, and dryness. Topical application (noninvasive) has patient compliance.
Surgeries have been performed for over a century, from the more invasive saphenous stripping to less invasive procedures like ambulatory phlebectomy and CHIVA.
Stripping consists of removal of all or part the saphenous vein (great/long or lesser/short) main trunk. The complications include deep vein thrombosis (5.3%), pulmonary embolism (0.06%), and wound complications including infection (2.2%). There is evidence for the great saphenous vein regrowing after stripping. For traditional surgery, reported recurrence rates, which have been tracked for 10 years, range from 5–60%. In addition, since stripping removes the saphenous main trunks, they are no longer available for use as venous bypass grafts in the future (coronary or leg artery vital disease)
Other surgical treatments are:
- Ambulatory phlebectomy
- Vein ligation is done at the saphenofemoral junction after ligating the tributaries at the sephanofemoral junction without stripping the long saphenous vein provided the perforater veins are competent and absent DVT in the deep veins. With this method, the long saphenous vein is preserved.
- Cryosurgery- A cryoprobe is passed down the long saphenous vein following saphenofemoral ligation. Then the probe is cooled with NO2 or CO2 to −85o F. The vein freezes to the probe and can be retrogradely stripped after 5 seconds of freezing. It is a variant of Stripping. The only point of this technique is to avoid a distal incision to remove the stripper.
A commonly performed non-surgical treatment for varicose and “spider” leg veins is sclerotherapy, in which medicine (sclerosant) is injected into the veins to make them shrink. The medicines that are commonly used as sclerosants are polidocanol (POL branded Asclera in the United States, Aethoxysklerol in Australia), sodium tetradecyl sulphate (STS), Sclerodex (Canada), Hypertonic Saline, Glycerin and Chromated Glycerin. STS (branded Fibrovein in Australia) liquids can be mixed at varying concentrations of sclerosant and varying sclerosant/gas proportions, with air or CO2 or O2 to create foams. Foams may allow more veins to be treated per session with comparable efficacy. Their use in contrast to liquid sclerosant is still somewhat controversial. Sclerotherapy has been used in the treatment of varicose veins for over 150 years. Sclerotherapy is often used for telangiectasias (spider veins) and varicose veins that persist or recur after vein stripping. Sclerotherapy can also be performed using foamed sclerosants under ultrasound guidance to treat larger varicose veins, including the great saphenous and small saphenous veins.
A 1996 study reported a 76% success rate at 24 months in treating saphenofemoral junction and great saphenous vein incompetence with STS 3% solution. A Cochrane Collaboration review concluded sclerotherapy was better than surgery in the short term (1 year) for its treatment success, complication rate and cost, but surgery was better after 5 years, although the research is weak. A Health Technology Assessment found that sclerotherapy provided less benefit than surgery, but is likely to provide a small benefit in varicose veins without reflux. This Health Technology Assessment monograph included reviews of epidemiology, assessment, and treatment, as well as a study on clinical and cost effectiveness of surgery and sclerotherapy.
Complications of sclerotherapy are rare but can include blood clots and ulceration. Anaphylactic reactions are “extraordinarily rare but can be life-threatening,” and doctors should have resuscitation equipment ready. There has been one reported case of stroke after ultrasound-guided sclerotherapy when an unusually large dose of sclerosant foam was injected.
Endovenous thermal ablation
There are three kinds of endovenous thermal ablation treatment possible : laser, radiofrequency and steam.
The Australian Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC) in 2008 determined that endovenous laser treatment/ablation (ELA) for varicose veins “appears to be more effective in the short term, and at least as effective overall, as the comparative procedure of junction ligation and vein stripping for the treatment of varicose veins. It also found in its assessment of available literature, that “occurrence rates of more severe complications such as DVT, nerve injury, and paraesthesia, post-operative infections, and haematomas, appears to be greater after ligation and stripping than after EVLT”. Complications for ELA include minor skin burns (0.4%) and temporary paraesthesia (2.1%). The longest study of endovenous laser ablation is 39 months.
Two prospective randomized trials found speedier recovery and fewer complications after radiofrequency ablation (ERA) compared to open surgery. Myers wrote that open surgery for small saphenous vein reflux is obsolete. Myers said these veins should be treated with endovenous techniques, citing high recurrence rates after surgical management, and risk of nerve damage up to 15%. By comparison ERA has been shown to control 80% of cases of small saphenous vein reflux at 4 years, said Myers. Complications for ERA include burns, paraesthesia, clinical phlebitis and slightly higher rates of deep vein thrombosis (0.57%) and pulmonary embolism (0.17%). One 3-year study compared ERA, with a recurrence rate of 33%, to open surgery, which had a recurrence rate of 23%.
Steam treatment consists in injection of pulses of steam into the sick vein. This treatment which works with a natural agent (water) has similar results than laser or radiofrequency. The steam presents a lot of post-operative advantages for the patient (good aesthetic results, less pain, etc.)
ELA and ERA require specialized training for doctors and special equipment. ELA is performed as an outpatient procedure and does not require an operating theatre, nor does the patient need a general anaesthetic. Doctors use high-frequency ultrasound during the procedure to visualize the anatomical relationships between the saphenous structures. Some practitioners also perform phlebectomy or ultrasound guided sclerotherapy at the time of endovenous treatment. Follow-up treatment to smaller branch varicose veins is often needed in the weeks or months after the initial procedure. Steam is a very promising treatment for both doctors (easy introduction of catheters, efficient on recurrences, ambulatory procedure, easy and economic procedure) and patients (less post-operative pain, a natural agent, fast recovery to daily activities).