Varicose Veins: A Yoga Practice That Can Help Alleviate Symptoms
Since humans are bipeds, standing and walking upright adds more pressure to the veins of legs and feet and these tend to wear out easily. Thus, while any vein may become varicose, the veins of the legs and feet are most commonly affected. Symptoms that signal the presence of varicose veins include among others:
· Heavy feeling in the legs
· Burning and/or swelling in the lower legs
· Extreme pain after prolonged sitting or standing
· Constant itch in these areas
How Do Our Veins Work?
The function of veins is to carry blood from the rest of the body and return it to the heart for recirculation. From the extremities (your legs and arms), for the blood to return to the heart, the veins must work against gravity. The small muscles surrounding the blood vessels, together with the tiny valves inside the vein, act as pumps and facilitate the flow of the blood to the heart.
These tiny valves operate such that blood flow is unidirectional: toward the heart. The valves open and allow the blood to flow toward the heart and close to stop blood from backflow. But there are conditions when the valves and surrounding musculature become weak and lose their pumping flexibility. This results in accumulation of the blood in the veins, which triggers varicosity. On occasions, blood clots can also form in these areas. Some of the causes of varicose veins include:
Age: Veins can lose elasticity and start to stretch as the individual gets older. This causes the blood to accumulate in the veins, resulting in their enlargement. The blue coloration is due to the impurities in the blood (deoxygenated).
Family history: The risk of suffering from varicose veins is greater if other family members had it.
Obesity: Being overweight puts excessive pressure on the legs that can often lead to varicose veins.
Standing or sitting for long periods of time: Blood does not flow well if the individual is in the sitting or standing position for long periods because muscles that have lost their flexibility or elasticity cannot pump efficiently.
Pregnancy: Circulatory changes happen during pregnancy to support the growing fetus and a side effect of that to the mother is enlargement of the veins in the legs.
Treatments for Varicose Veins
For treatment, there are both invasive and non-invasive options. Unfortunately, no treatment procedures can prevent new veins from becoming varicose. Depending on the condition of varicosity, doctors will either recommend compression stockings, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, laser treatment to cauterize the varicose veins, or ablation to destroy and ultimately close the vein.
As it turns out, varicose veins are common in those with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and can be painful. As a person who has lived with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, I, too, had spider veins in both legs. And because my work involved a lot of standing, I used to experience a lot of pain in my lower legs. When I consulted with my primary care physician, she suggested sclerotherapy, a procedure involving scarring and closing the veins with a solution that then reroutes the blood through other healthier veins.
How Yoga Can Help Varicose Veins
Since I was not ready to undergo a surgical procedure had already gotten my 200-hour RYT designation, I thought of using myself as a test case (numero 1) to see if yoga poses could alleviate my condition. If my condition did not improve with yoga, I was willing to undergo the chemical procedure to scar the veins.
So, with that intention, I started a judicious home practice with a set of specific poses. It included three rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), followed by three rounds each side of Virabhadrasana I, II and III (Warrior I, II and III poses) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose).
In all these poses, I consciously kept moving my legs and my leg muscles continuously to facilitate the pumping action and the venous flow. This was followed by a set of two inversions to get my legs upside down, including Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand Pose) and Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose) or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand Pose) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand Pose).
The rationale for doing these inversions is both to ease the pressure on the legs and to use gravity to promote circulation. To get the maximum benefit and to make the poses more effective, I started focusing on the legs and consciously engaged in pointing and flexing just the feet as a way to contract and relax the lower leg muscles. I ended the practice with three rounds of alternate nostril breathing and five minutes of stillness.
I did this entire sequence mindfully for six months. Sure enough, there are absolutely no visible signs of spider veins on my legs and presently I am free from any varicose veins or spider veins.
You may wonder how by simply elevating the leg or exercising the leg muscles “cures” spider veins or varicose veins. Further, following a yoga session, as soon as I stand up again, the valves will still fail and, in my case, the spider veins will still be there. And yet, after six months of a judicious practice, I was able to alleviate the condition.
The only explanation that I can offer is that by mindfully engaging those leg muscles, I was strengthening the muscles and the tiny valves, preventing them from further decay. As I kept doing the poses daily I was sustaining all the beneficial changes at the cellular level to the stage where the tiny valves turned more stable and strong to prevent any backflow of blood.
To support my explanation with any evidence-based studies, I checked the medical research websites for any research published linking yoga and varicose veins. I did not find a single relevant paper or case report. So, until there is at least one major trial to prove the causal link between yoga and varicose veins, you can use my case as an example. Let me also admit that the reversal did not happen in one or two weeks, it took nearly six months of daily practice.
Additionally, when I started finding significant relief after three months of practice, I added other lifestyle changes all of which may have further accelerated and sustained the benefits. These included: a diet rich in fiber (plenty of greens and fruits) plus water-based veggies, including cilantro, basil, fennel, dandelion greens, cucumber, and asparagus. I also moved frequently from a standing to a sitting position and vice versa. While sitting, I frequently shifted and moved my heels and feet, and while sleeping I elevated my legs slightly by placing a pillow under my legs.
These days, when I discuss the benefits of yoga and talk briefly about varicose veins, I cite my own experience to declare that yoga is an excellent practice to treat varicose veins and relieve the aching pain associated with it. Time to roll out my mat!
Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.
Ram Rao, Ph.D. With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram presently serves as a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focuses on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time, he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA). Varicosity is a condition in which veins weaken and flush the blood backward and away from the heart. These weakened veins are termed “varicose” veins. In fact, if the condition is chronic, you can actually see the varicose veins popping out as dark purple or blue colored knotted and enlarged structures. Varicose veins appear twisted and swollen.