What to Know About Postpartum Varicose Veins

Varicose veins on back of woman's calf

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Among the many transformations that occur while you’re pregnant, some—like your newfound pregnancy glow—can be welcome perks. However, the same increase in blood volume that gives your skin that healthy-looking flush can also result in some not-so-welcome changes. Case in point: Postpartum varicose veins.

Although they can appear on your vagina and buttocks as a result of pregnancy, they most commonly form as knotted, swollen, veiny areas on the skin on the backs of your calves, insides of your legs, ankles, or feet. The good news is that they’re typically harmless and temporary inconveniences, which usually resolve within three to 12 months after childbirth. That said, in the meantime, they can sometimes become itchy or uncomfortable.

Fortunately, if you understand what causes them, you can figure out how to help treat and prevent them.

What Are Postpartum Varicose Veins?

Despite their name, postpartum varicose veins don't tend to occur “postpartum,” shares Mary P. Lupo, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Lupo Center for Aesthetic & General Dermatology and clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. They usually start before delivery, developing as a result of being pregnant, generally during the third trimester. But, as noted, they can last for a few months to a year afterward. Your chances for developing them likely have a genetic basis, meaning that if any of your family members developed them during their pregnancy, you’re at a higher risk for them too.

“Postpartum varicose veins are a common occurrence following childbirth,” explains Rachel Nazarin, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC and a member of the Verywell Family Review Board. “Veins in the legs often stretch and dilate, and become more visible through the skin.” 

When your veins are functioning optimally, they have one-way valves that help keep your blood flowing toward your heart. However, when you're pregnant, Dr. Lupo counsels that you have more blood volume—it increases around 45%. (Your heart is pumping for two, after all.) This can create pressure on your blood vessels, which can weaken the valves within them, causing blood to get backed up and pool in your veins. Sustained pressure from this backup, coupled with the added weight of your growing baby bump, among other factors, then enlarges veins in your lower extremities, making them tangle and swell. 

Interestingly, another common issue that can arise during pregnancy, hemorrhoids, are the result of the same circulatory bottleneck—just occurring in your rectum, due to strain or constipation, rather than your legs, ankles, or feet.

Despite postpartum varicose veins typically being an aesthetic nuisance or discomfort, that doesn’t mean you should just look the other way. “Although they are [usually] a cosmetic concern, occasionally varicose veins are also a medical concern because they are signs of poor blood circulation, and can cause pain or even increase the risk of blood clots,” cautions Dr. Nazarian. So, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about them. That way, they can keep them on their radar in case a more serious issue does develop. 

What Are Symptoms of Postpartum Varicose Veins?

The most obvious symptom of postpartum varicose veins is their appearance—large, raised dark blue or purple veins on your legs, ankles, or feet that look entangled with each other. They may cause a heavy, throbbing, cramping, or burning sensation in your legs, or swollen and achy feet or ankles. This discomfort may also increase if you sit or stand for long periods of time. Other symptoms of postpartum varicose veins can include itchiness or slight skin discoloration around one or more of the enlarged knots.

“Some worsening of veins may be noted immediately following childbirth,” notes Dr. Nazarian. “But it can show improvement over the following months, as your body starts to normalize and the baby is no longer impeding blood flow.” If you’re experiencing any minor discomfort from postpartum varicose veins, try and remember: It should only be temporary and ought to pass with time.

Of course, if you’re concerned by their appearance or any other symptoms you may experience—such as painful swelling or tenderness, major changes in skin color and thickness, or a rash on your ankles—always consult your healthcare provider.

What Causes Postpartum Varicose Veins?

As we mentioned, think of postpartum varicose veins as bottlenecks in your circulatory system. They’re caused by improper functioning of your blood vessel valves, which results in blood pooling and subsequently enlarged veins. This makes them appear more prominent—and may or may not make them uncomfortable. 

“This is typically due to the pressure of the baby, or larger midsection/belly, and the subsequent pressure on blood circulation coming from the lower body,” Dr. Nazarian shares. As your baby bump grows, it puts pressure on the vein that carries blood from your legs and feet to your heart (the inferior vena cava)—especially when you’re lying flat on your back. While both pressure from increased blood volume and baby weight are major contributors to postpartum varicose veins, there may also be another culprit that can exacerbate them.  

Just as a surge in pregnancy hormones can bring on hormonal acne and the fog of pregnancy brain, it can also lead to varicose veins. This is because increased progesterone levels can cause your veins to dilate, making the valves within them more susceptible to malfunction. After your baby arrives, as your hormones and body return to more like your pre-pregnant self, the valve function in your veins should right itself by your infant’s first birthday—or even months sooner.

How Can You Treat Postpartum Varicose Veins?

While many of us are prone to self-diagnosis and treatment via Dr. Google, try to resist the temptation. Only your healthcare provider can make a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for postpartum varicose veins. That said, there are a few things they may recommend that can help relieve any swelling or discomfort.

Since the root cause behind postpartum varicose veins is pressure, you should focus your efforts on relieving any unnecessary demands on your ankles, legs, and feet. This means avoiding sitting or standing for long periods of time, not wearing tight clothing, and, whenever possible, kicking your feet up whether you’re seated or lying down. If itchiness or discomfort is bothersome, you can also try using an ice pack or cool compress on the affected areas to reduce swelling. But always ask your healthcare provider in case they can provide any other recommendations.

If you weren't pregnant or breastfeeding, Dr. Lupo adds that there are types of in-office varicose vein treatments such as lasers or sclerotherapy (an injectable procedure to shrink the veins). However, since postpartum varicose veins typically clear up after delivery, they're not recommended during your pre- or post-natal period.

We should also note: You may have heard that consuming horse chestnut seed extract—with the poisonous component "esculin" in it removed—can treat varicose veins. However, although the toxin is absent, there’s no research on whether or not it’s safe for you and your baby. So, be on the safe side, and give it a hard pass.

Is There Any Way To Prevent Postpartum Varicose Veins?

If you’re proactive during your pregnancy, you can always try the same pressure-reducing techniques to help prevent postpartum varicose veins: not sitting or standing for too long, avoiding tight clothing, and keeping your feet up, when possible. There’s also a fairly simple—almost counterintuitive—strategy.

Compression Stockings

“The best approach against varicose veins is to prevent them,” advises Dr. Nazarian. “This can be done to some degree by keeping legs elevated, and being diligent about wearing compression stockings daily.” Compression stockings, she explains, improve blood return in the lower legs, thereby fostering the flow of blood from the feet up to the heart. This helps prevent dilation of the veins and pressure buildup.

The stockings do this by reducing excess leakage of fluid from your capillaries, and by increasing reabsorption of any fluid overflow by your capillaries and lymphatic tissues. Plus, limiting the expansion of your blood vessels to begin with helps prevent the backflow of blood and bottleneck in the first place.

Avoid High Heels

Another easy way to help prevent postpartum varicose veins is to retire any high heels for the time being and go with lower heels or flat shoes. This will help work out your calf muscles more, which promotes healthy circulation.

Get Regular Exercise

Along the same lines, speak to your doctor about low-impact exercises you can do to keep your blood flowing properly. Just be sure to stay away from any pregnancy no-nos, like hot yoga or skiing. 

Sleep on Your Left Side

We know, we all have our go-to sleeping positions. But, if you’re worried about getting varicose veins, give sleeping on your left side a try. It can help relieve pressure from your belly on your inferior vena cava, helping to foster normal blood flow.

Watch Your Weight Gain

The greater number of pounds you put on while pregnant, the more pressure you're putting on your cardiovascular system—and the higher the risk of developing postpartum varicose veins becomes. "Keep weight gain to no more than 30 pounds," Dr. Lupo advises. We know, curbing your pregnancy cravings is easier said than done. But try your best to avoid indulging too much.

Hold the Salt

Similarly, it’s always a good idea to limit your salt intake—but especially while you’re pregnant. Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which can cause complications. However, it can also help limit swelling of your veins and prevent extra pounds from bloating.

A Word From Verywell

Postpartum varicose veins can be bothersome. But, unless they’re causing you significant discomfort, they’re generally harmless. Either way, though, always discuss them with your healthcare provider in case they’re indicative of a more serious vascular or blood clotting issue. In most cases, they’ll generally clear up on their own after childbirth, as your body returns to its pre-pregnancy state, likely before your baby’s first birthday—or even months sooner. 

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cat Matta
Cat is a linguistic alchemist and expert wordsmith who has written and edited for some of the world's biggest brands. However, she particularly enjoys the medical, aesthetic, pharma, mental health, and beauty realms. She works full-time as a senior content manager at a multinational digital agency.