Put Up Your Feet! Vein Health and Pregnancy

Veins help maintain good circulation in the process that ultimately provides oxygen to your extremities and your unborn child. Learn how to care for your veins during pregnancy and spot potential problems.

If you’re expecting, you know that pregnancy is a time of physical turmoil. While you may be ecstatic about the pending arrival of your bundle of joy, for nine months, your body is in overdrive as it goes through incredible changes to accommodate the growing life you carry. For the duration, you comply with every bodily need by guzzling water, taking naps, and rubbing creams on your tummy. But you might need to add one more item of concern to the list: veins.

What do veins have to do with a healthy pregnancy? A lot! From nose to toes, your veins play a part in maintaining good circulation in the process that ultimately provides oxygen to your extremities and your unborn child. If something were to obstruct your blood flow, serious complications could arise for you and your baby.

Why Am I at Risk?

Women in general are more susceptible to vein problems than men, but a pregnant woman’s risk is increased dramatically. According to Dr. Jose Almeida, MD, diplomat of the American Board of Surgery, this risk can be attributed to several theories regarding the appearance of varicose veins in pregnant women.

More Blood: An increase in the amount of blood circulating in a woman’s body makes varicose veins more prone to happen.

More Hormones: “Increases in progesterone production during pregnancy are thought to contribute to weakening the vein wall and subsequent bulging varicose veins,” says Dr. Almeida. Veins become more elastic when hormones increase, causing the walls to dilate.

More Pressure: With a growing baby pressing onto the pelvis, a large vein called the vena cava is compressed and can cause blood to pool in the legs. The more your baby grows, the more the problem of restricted blood flow out of the legs becomes an issue.

Hereditary factors also play a role in a woman’s risk of developing varicose veins, says Dr. Robert Min, MD, interventional radiologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. If you’re genetically predisposed, pregnancy “is probably the most common cause leading to worsening of veins,” he explains.

Do I Have Varicose Veins?

Besides the most recognizable symptoms such as veins that look knotted or blue and spidery, varicose veins manifest themselves in a variety of other ways, including by pain. Dr. Min says the symptoms that affect the legs of pregnant women include aching, fatigue, night cramps, restless legs, and swelling.

“The symptoms are usually worse with prolonged standing, at the end of the day, or in warm weather,” says Dr. Min. Moms-to-be may experience an even more serious condition called pelvic congestion syndrome (PCS), which involves leaking valves in the pelvic veins. Pelvic congestion syndrome usually appears in women who have had multiple pregnancies and can be noticed during pregnancy as causing pelvic pain and pain following sexual intercourse.

What Can I Do?

There is good news for pregnant women: Although varicose veins are serious, there are plenty of ways to prevent them. Exercise, especially for the legs, is key to maintaining vein health during pregnancy.

Dr. Luis Navarro, MD, founder and director of The Vein Treatment Center in New York City, says leg exercises help to make a pregnant woman’s “second heart” stronger. This “second heart” is a “system of muscles, veins, and valves in the calf and foot that work together as a pump … with every step or muscle contraction.” Dr. Navarro emphasizes how helpful the simple act of walking is in encouraging blood flow out of the legs and to the heart.

Three, 20-minute exercise sessions a week should do the trick, says Dr. Navarro, and you can mix it up with a variety of low-impact activities such as walking, hiking, leg lifts, or yoga. You won’t just be benefiting your veins, however. These activities also help to promote good cardiovascular health, boost energy, and keep weight gain minimal—another factor in controlling development of varicose veins.

Dr. Min agrees with the “simple is best” sentiment toward vein health exercises, promoting walking above all else, along with heel raises and foot pressing movements (imagine pressing the accelerator in a car).

In addition to exercise, you can also modify your lifestyle to take the load off your veins. “Sleep and rest on your left side,” advises Dr. James Chlovechok, MD, board-certified physician and founder of the Ohio Sports Medicine Institute, who explains that sleeping on the left side takes the weight off the pelvic and vena cava vessels. Likewise, keep your feet elevated and avoid standing for long periods of time. Let gravity work for you, and keep your legs lifted and parallel to your upper body when sitting.

If your veins show signs of weakening, your doctor may prescribe graduated support hose, which keep pressure on your veins and help to milk the blood out of your legs. Ideally, a combination of all of the above helps to keep your veins in optimal shape, benefiting you and your baby.

Just think of varicose veins as another reason to kick up your feet and relax. You deserve to take a load off; your baby and body will thank you for it.

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