Minimally invasive – with maximum benefits
Chris Barton's recollection of varicose vein treatment goes way back, when her aunt underwent vein-stripping surgery followed by periodic injections in her legs that caused severe bruising. "It scared me. I dreaded having to go through all that, even though I knew my varicose veins were causing me problems, including leg fatigue and swelling. All I wanted to do at the end of the day was go home and elevate them," says the West Fargo Chamber of Commerce president who also works part-time in a clothing store. "Fortunately the treatment I had was nothing like my aunt's. And the results have been incredible…"
Throughout the day, Dawn Schaffer would notice the heavy, tired, achy feeling in her legs, but what really bothered her was the throbbing leg pain that kept her awake at night. "The varicose veins were bulging, hurting and just plain ugly, but the throbbing pain at night was the worst," says the stay-at-home mom from Horace, N.D. "After our youngest was born, I decided it was time to take care of it. It's been a year now, and it's still a relief not to have hurting legs…"
For Chris and Dawn, troublesome symptoms of varicose veins prompted action. Both received minimally invasive treatments through MeritCare Leg Vein Services, but each received a different type to best address their particular problem.
"Certainly not all varicose veins are the same, which is why it's important to get a thorough, reliable evaluation at a place that offers the full range of treatment options," says Dr. Warren Albrecht, MeritCare vascular surgeon. "This ensures you'll get the treatment – or combination of treatments – that best meets your need, rather than the one treatment offered by that particular place."
MeritCare offers minimally invasive treatment options through two specialty areas: interventional radiology and vascular surgery. In both areas, highly trained and experienced specialists perform the treatments.
What are varicose veins?
The veins in your legs have a tough job – bringing blood back up to the heart to be recirculated. One-way valves help the upward process, but when the valves don't function properly, blood can gather in the veins, causing them to become enlarged (varicose). Usually a quarter inch or more in diameter, varicose veins can appear in clusters or rows and cause symptoms. Besides those experienced by Chris and Dawn, other symptoms can include burning, itching, swelling, cramping and restlessness. Left untreated, severe varicose veins can lead to more serious medical conditions including skin ulcers, vein inflammation and blood clots.
In assessing troublesome varicose veins, a well-performed ultrasound evaluation plays a key role. "It's important to get this evaluation performed in a certified ultrasound lab because inaccurate results can lead to the wrong treatment," says Dr. Albrecht.
Endovenous laser therapy
For Chris, and approximately 80 percent of people troubled with varicose veins, the problem can be traced to a large vein in the upper thigh – the great saphenous vein. "If the GSV has leaky valves, we see significant reflux (back flow of blood) and this contributes to varicose veins," says Dr. Eric Promersberger, MeritCare interventional radiologist. "By treating the source of the reflux, we're able to do a lot as far as pain relief. People get significant improvement."
In endovenous laser therapy, the specialist (an interventional radiologist or vascular surgeon) inserts a thin laser fiber into the GSV through a small incision. Laser energy heats the vein, causing it to shrink and collapse. The blood then routes to healthy veins, causing the larger varicose veins to diminish. (Any remaining varicose veins tend to be small and easily treatable in a follow-up procedure.)
The 45-minute treatment takes place in a procedure room and requires only local anesthesia. "Patients really like the quick recovery time. They walk out and can resume their normal activities the next day," says Dr. Promersberger. Chris agrees: "The treatment was as easy and carefree as it possibly could have been. In a week, I could tell the difference – the bulged-out veins had disappeared, no more tiredness in my legs and I had so much more energy. My husband, Randy, even asked if I was going to wear shorts again."
Transilluminated powered phlebectomy
An ultrasound exam showed Dawn's varicose veins were not GSV-related, so she required a different type of minimally invasive treatment: transilluminated powered phlebectomy.
Performed under anesthesia in an operating room, the procedure involves two to three strategically placed small incisions near the varicose veins to allow for the insertion of specially designed instruments, including one that "illuminates" the varicose veins. "The illumination is what enables the complete removal of the varicose veins – complete, yet minimally invasive," says Dr. Albrecht, who has been performing the treatment for about a year and a half and was the first to bring it to the Red River Valley. "People who have undergone previous procedures such as vein stripping are especially impressed at how quickly they can resume their activities."
Dawn's husband, Mark, took her home the same day of the treatment. "I was pretty sleepy that first day, but every time Mark got me up to walk, I could tell my legs didn't hurt like they used to," she says. "It was such a relief."
A quality-of-life difference
For both Dawn and Chris, the minimally invasive treatments brought maximum benefits. Says Chris: "There's no more tiredness in my legs, no more bulges where the varicose veins were and I have so much more energy. Now when I get home in the evening, I'm active with the kids and don't just sit and read them a book. Life became more enjoyable." For Dawn, no more throbbing and no more tiredness. "I'm still on my feet most of the day, but it's just so much more comfortable," she says. "And I can easily go to sleep at night."
For more information about services available through MeritCare Leg Vein Services, please call (701) 234-6236 (interventional radiology) or (701) 234-2251 (vascular surgery), or learn more at meritcare.com.