Why Are Varicose Veins Common In Athletes

Varicose Veins in Athletes: Causes, Risks and Treatment

Both competitive athletes and regular gym-goers strive to be as active as possible. But paradoxically, high activity levels are linked with developing enlarged bulging leg veins sooner. Up to 70% of frequent exercisers exhibit varicose veins to some degree. How exactly does exercise worsen varicosity risk factors versus protecting vascular health? Which activities and sports present top risks? Read on to understand why are varicose veins common in athletes and prevention tips.

Varicose veins are abnormally enlarged veins that often appear twisted, bulging, and swollen beneath the skin. While they can develop in anyone, varicose veins are extremely common in athletes engaged in sports that involve prolonged standing, running, and repetitive muscle use.

Up to 40% of competitive athletes have some degree of varicose veins in their lower limbs. The high-impact nature of sports applies unique pressures on leg veins that can cause them to malfunction and dilate over time. If left untreated, varicosities can worsen and lead to discomfort, leg swelling, skin damage, and circulation problems for athletes.

In this guide, we’ll examine the causes and risk factors for varicose veins in athletes. We’ll also discuss effective ways athletes can treat varicose veins and get back to optimal performance.

Why Are Varicose Veins Common in Athletes?

Varicose veins form when the valves inside the veins stop working properly. These one-way valves are supposed to keep blood flowing efficiently from the legs back to the heart.

When the valves leak or don’t open/close fully, blood can flow backward and pool inside the veins. This elevated pressure causes the veins to abnormally stretch, elongate, and bulge.

Athletes are prone to developing faulty venous valves and varicose veins for several reasons:

High-Impact Exercise

The intense physical demands of athletic training and competition place significant pressure on leg veins and valves. Blood flow to the lower limbs increases up to 20X during exercise.

Repetitive Straining

Repeated muscle contractions during routines like weightlifting, cycling, and running perpetually strain leg veins. Over time, valves weaken.

Direct Trauma

Sports with lots of kicks knocks, and blows directly to the legs can damage veins and valves. Examples are soccer, MMA, football, and wrestling.

Poor Circulation

Tight clothes, dehydration, and thick muscle mass can restrict healthy circulation in athletes’ legs. Venous blood flow suffers.


Many athletes are simply predisposed to varicose veins due to inherited valve weaknesses and vein wall elasticity.

Together, these athletic-specific factors create the “perfect storm” for developing enlarged, painful varicose veins over time. Without proper treatment, an athlete’s vascular health and performance can decline significantly.

How Exercise Strains Leg Veins

Exercise provides incredible benefits boosting circulation, artery health, and blood vessel elasticity. But certain elements of frequent intense training or repetitive movements directly strain the veins:

Leg Veins
Leg Veins

Intense Pressure

High-impact activity like running places massive pressure on leg veins equivalent to 50 times your body weight with each stride! Damaged valves leak.

Blood Bottlenecks

Calf muscles soak up blood during activity. As vessels and muscles relax post-exercise, all that pooled blood floods back into circulation via veins struggling to accommodate surging capacity.

Lactic Acid Buildup

Working out intensely creates oxygen debt with cells spewing out lactic acid into the bloodstream. This byproduct damages vein walls long-term inducing inflammation.

Overheated Blood

During endurance exercise, core temperatures spike over 102°F. Exposure to such blood heat spreads vein wall weakness over the years.

Low Body Fat

Minimal body fat provides less cushioning protection for veins closely underlying skin in athletic legs. Trauma risks go up.

Which Athletes Are At The Highest Risk?

Some sports and athletic profiles carry increased risks for varicose veins in the legs. Athletes most prone to varicosities include:

  • Runners – The constant pounding involved in running is extremely taxing on leg veins. Up to 70% of distance runners have some varicose veins.
  • Weightlifters – Lifting heavy weights creates intense pressure in the veins as leg muscles contract. Prevalence is up to 55%.
  • Basketball, Tennis & Volleyball Players – The continual stop-start motions and jumping in these sports strain leg veins. Risk is increased by about 30%.
  • Cyclists – Restrictive cycling shorts and constant pedaling motions put pressure on veins. 30% have varicosities.
  • Soccer, Football and Wrestling Players – Repeated direct knocks and blows to the legs damage veins. The risk is higher.
  • Swimmers & Dancers – Though less high-impact, these athletes still have increased risk from overuse of leg muscles.
  • Athletes With a Family History – Genetic predisposition raises risk across all sports.

Beyond the type of sport, other athlete-specific risk factors include:

  • Older Age – Years of high-impact training cause vein damage to accumulate.
  • Dehydration/Reduced Blood Volume – Circulatory problems contribute to varicosities.
  • Very Large Muscle Mass – Can compress veins and restrict healthy blood flow in the legs.
  • Past Blood Clots – A DVT or PE damages valve function, leading to varicose veins.

Getting regular check-ups and screenings allows athletes to monitor for varicose vein development before they worsens. Early treatment and lifestyle changes can help.


Signs of Varicose Veins in Athletes

Athletes should look for these common signs of varicose veins in their lower legs:

  • Visible bulging, enlarged veins under the skin that appear twisted and swollen
  • Aching, throbbing, muscle cramping, pain or soreness in the legs
  • Sensations of heaviness, burning, or swelling in the calves or ankles
  • Worsened symptoms after exercise, long periods on your feet, or heat exposure
  • Itching and discolored skin overlying prominent veins
  • Restless leg syndrome, especially at night

Symptoms are often worse following strenuous training or competition as high-impact athletic activity further strains damaged leg veins. See a phlebologist promptly if you develop any unexplained leg pain or notice new bulging veins.

Preventing Athletic Varicose Veins

Can athletes continue intensive training yet avoid unsightly varicose veins and pain? Strategic self-care helps including:

  • Cross-train balancing leg impact with less vein-taxing swimming, cycling, or upper body days
  • Ice leg veins for 10 minutes post-exercise
  • Elevate legs on rest days
  • Choose shock-absorbing sneakers
  • Stay lean and mean through clean eating
  • Consider medical-grade compression garments
  • Undergo ultrasound vein checks annually
  • Treat varicose veins early via endovenous procedures if detected

Dangers of Leaving Varicose Veins Untreated in Athletes

Many athletes try to simply ignore and ‘play through’ their varicose veins. But leaving them untreated comes with serious health risks:

Leg Ulcers

Varicose veins can cause poor circulation, swelling, and ruptures in the thin overlying skin. Open, non-healing leg ulcers may develop.

Leg Ulcers
Leg Ulcers

DVT Formation

Blood pooling in enlarged veins slows circulation and raises clotting risks. An athlete may suffer a deep vein thrombosis.

Chronic Pain/Cramps

Worsening achy pain, soreness, heaviness, and cramping can significantly impact athletic performance.

Bleeding Veins

With trauma, the thin walls of varicose veins can rupture and bleed. This causes painful subcutaneous hematomas.

Worsened Appearance

Over time, varicose veins keep expanding and new ones can form. They become more unsightly.

Increased Injury Risk

Poor leg circulation and oxygenation due to varicose veins can prevent proper muscle healing after sports injuries.

Seeking medical treatment promptly gives athletes the best chances of eliminating varicose veins before they worsen or threaten career longevity.

Diagnosing Varicose Veins in Athletes

If an athlete develops worrisome leg symptoms, a consultation with a vascular specialist is needed for accurate varicose vein diagnosis. Diagnostic tests may include:

Medical History

The doctor will ask about the athlete’s training regimen, family history of varicose veins, pain symptoms, past injuries, etc.

Physical Exam

The physician will examine the legs while standing to pinpoint any areas of enlarged, twisted veins.

Vascular Ultrasound

Soundwave imaging of the legs checks for reversed blood flow, leaking valves, blood clots, and sources of reflux causing varicosities.


Contrast dye is injected to enhance X-ray images of the leg veins. Blockages, valve issues, and sources of reflux are revealed.

CT or MRI Scan

Advanced 3D imaging provides enhanced views of damaged veins if ultrasound is inconclusive.

Based on the test results, the doctor can map the location of faulty valves and abnormal reflux to guide targeted treatments. Catching problems early optimizes the treatment outlook.

Medical Treatments for Athlete’s Varicose Veins

Treating varicose veins as early as possible helps athletes regain healthy leg veins, prevent complications, and stay active in their sport. Treatment options include:

Compression Stockings

Graduated compression stockings worn during exercise and recovery improve venous circulation and valve functionality. They also help alleviate swelling and discomfort from varicose veins.


Prescription-strength vein medicines like Pentoxifylline can help ease aching, cramping, and swelling in the legs. Horse chestnut extract also tones vein walls.


Direct injections of a chemical irritant into damaged veins cause them to gradually fade and close off. This halts faulty blood reflux. Repeat treatments are given for thorough results.

Endothermal Ablation

Advanced catheter procedures use heat or steam energy to collapse and seal off diseased veins from the inside. This redirects blood flow to healthier veins.

Ambulatory Phlebectomy

Varicose veins are directly removed through tiny micro-incisions in the skin under local anesthesia. This quickly eliminates bulges.

For athlete-specific concerns, treatment plans can be scheduled strategically around competition seasons for minimal performance disruption.

Can Varicose Veins End an Athlete’s Career?

If Varicose veins are left untreated and advance to advanced stages, the impacts on an athlete’s performance and longevity in their sport can indeed become severe. However, with today’s modern minimally invasive treatments, the outlook is very promising.

By having varicose veins treated early, most athletes can avoid having to curtail or quit their athletic careers prematurely. The key is being proactive with regular leg vein checks and not delaying varicose vein treatment once diagnosed.

With the right vascular care, compression stockings, and post-procedure rehabilitation, most athletes are able to return to fulfilling competition after varicose vein procedures within several weeks.


Why do varicose veins often spare casual gym-goers?

Infrequent moderate workouts avoid extremes strenuous enough to provoke serious vein injury and dysfunction. Genetic risk factors also play a key role in dictating varicosity likelihood.

Are arterial blood vessels also vulnerable in athletes?

Far less often. Arteries withstand blood pressure extremes better and athletes actually boost cardiorespiratory circulation. But decades of high-impact activity moderately raises aortic aneurysm risks requiring screening.

Can young teen athletes develop varicose veins?

Highly unlikely. Significant teenage varicosity usually reflects an underlying vascular condition or genetic syndrome. Mild spider veins may surface during puberty sports.

Don’t compression garments prevent an athlete’s varicose veins?

Maybe. Gradient compression technology does help support and shield working leg veins from excessive swelling and overfilling during activity. They cannot reverse underlying valve weakness once present, however.

Last words

The intense demands placed on lower body veins during athletic activity make varicose vein formation a common issue for competitive athletes. Sports involving excessive straining, direct leg trauma, tight garments, and poor leg circulation contribute to weakened valves and problematic enlarged leg veins over time.

Left untreated, varicose veins can cause increasing pain, leg swelling, skin changes, injuries, and circulation reduction that threaten an athlete’s performance and career. Getting checked annually and beginning medical treatment right away if varicosities develop are vital.

Today’s minimally invasive procedures like sclerotherapy and endothermal ablation can eliminate varicose veins with little downtime. Supporting overall cardiovascular health also helps prevent recurrences. Addressing varicose veins promptly allows athletes to continue excelling in the sports they love with healthy legs.


My name is Selina, a medical specialist blogger helping people access treatment for 5+ years. Although blogging awhile, only recently deeply engaged. This past year my most productive, providing hospital reviews and info on symptoms, diagnoses and diseases. Also offer guidelines to help readers navigate healthcare. Goal to continue increased content pace to assist many. Aim to facilitate treatment and empower advocacy through writing.

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