When your heart beats blood is pumped along the arteries. The blood which is pumped along arteries heading for the lungs picks up oxygen while the blood which is pumped towards the organs and tissues of the body delivers oxygen. Inside the strong, thick-walled arteries blood is under pressure, pumped with some urgency out of the heart and away towards every other nook and cranny of the body.

Once the blood has delivered its oxygen and picked up the waste products which the tissues and organs need to get rid of, it travels at a more leisurely pace and under much less pressure, being pumped along by the contractions of three muscles which surround the comparatively thin-walled veins. Valves within the veins make sure that the blood only travels in one direction.

The veins in the legs have the particularly difficult task of carrying blood up the legs. If the owner of the legs is standing upright then the blood has to be transported against the force of gravity. Clearly, therefore, someone who spends the day standing up is obviously going to put a greater than average strain on his or her leg veins – and consequently stands a high chance of developing varicose veins. Dentists and shop assistants are common sufferers for this reason.

There is another cause we know about. And that is one peculiar to women: female hormones. This perhaps explains why for every man with varicose veins there will be five women. Pregnancy is said to be an important influence and many women first develop their varicose veins when they are pregnant. Unhappily, those veins rarely go down completely at the end of the pregnancy. It’s perhaps no wonder that the typical varicose vein sufferer is a woman shop assistant with several children.

Naturally, not everyone with varicose veins stands up a great deal or has had lots of children. In many people varicose veins develop for no very good reason at all. Approximately 20% of the population develop varicose veins and most of the time we just don’t know why. It may be that they are just inherited – handed down in the family like heirlooms and Grandad’s medals.

What we do know is that it is the veins at the back of the leg which are most likely to be affected and that the veins at the back of the left leg are more commonly affected than the ones at the back of the right leg. The swollen vein often aches, and because blood is not getting back to the heart efficiently the ankles often swell too.

When the problems are severe and there is persistent pain or swelling, perhaps accompanied by phlebitis, ulcers or skin troubles, then clearly surgical action needs to be considered. If the veins involved are small ones injections may help by artificially inducing the clotting of blood inside the small veins and therefore sealing them off. If the varicose veins are long ones then surgical removal may be necessary.

However, when the symptoms are relatively slight and not too much trouble they can be kept under control without a surgeon – simply by wearing elastic stockings.

Unfortunately, when the words ‘elastic stockings’ are used many people wince and pretend not to hear. Men, of course, don’t fancy the idea of wearing stockings and women are reluctant to wear horrid thick stockings that they feel will detract from their appearance.

That’s a pity for two reasons. Firstly, if varicose veins are left uncontrolled they are likely to get worse, and secondly, clastic stockings need not look like something Grandma threw out half a century ago. There are a number of firms making elastic stockings and tights which look more or less like ordinary stockings and tights when worn and which certainly don’t offend the eyes of beholders.

Scholl are one of the best-known makers of elastic and support hosiery.

Their support hose (such as Scboll Support Tights and Scholl Maternity Support Hose) is made from man-made fibres and is recommended for use by people with very mild varicose veins.

Their elastic hosiery is made from rubber yarn and designed for more advanced varicose veins. There is another difference: whereas support hosiery is available as tights, elastic hosiery is usually available only as stockings. The Scboll range designed for moderate varicose veins includes Nylastic Stockings and Nylastic Waistlengtb Stockings (which are a compromise between stockings and tights) and for more severe problems they make Scholl Soft Grip Elastic Stockings which are said to be unnoticeable when worn under ordinary stockings.

In addition, there are below-thc-knee stockings and coloured support socks for men. Other companies make similar ranges of products so you have quite a choice.

Elastic stockings, if strong enough to keep the veins compressed and to help return blood from the legs, can not only ease aches, reduce swelling and prevent the development of worse varicose veins but they can also reduce the risk of thrombosis, varicose ulcers and varicose eczema. It is important to remember that elastic stockings need to be worn all day if they are to help prevent the development of complications. Incidentally, doctors can prescribe some types of elastic stockings.

If you are unfortunate enough to develop a varicose ulcer or any skin trouble associated with varicose veins do not try treating it yourself. There are products like Varicose Ulcer Ointment for this purpose but I don’t recommend them. Varicose ulcers can be a real problem and should always be treated professionally. It can take months to repair the damage caused by a day or two of improper treatment.