A variety of treatment modalities are available to treat varicose veins/venous insufficiency, including surgical approaches, thermal ablation, and sclerotherapy. The application of each of these treatment options is influenced by the severity of the symptoms, type of vein, source of venous reflux, and the use of other (prior or concurrent) treatments.
The venous system of the lower extremities consists of the superficial veins (this includes the greater and lesser saphenous and accessory, or duplicate, veins that travel in parallel with the greater and lesser saphenous veins), the deep system (popliteal and femoral veins), and perforator veins that cross through the fascia and connect the deep and superficial systems. One-way valves are present within all veins to direct the return of blood up the lower limb. Since venous pressure in the deep system is generally greater than that of the superficial system, valve incompetence at any level may lead to backflow (venous reflux) with pooling of blood in superficial veins. Varicose veins with visible varicosities may be the only sign of venous reflux, although itching, heaviness, tension, and pain may also occur. Chronic venous insufficiency secondary to venous reflux can lead to thrombophlebitis, leg ulcerations, and hemorrhage. The CEAP classification considers the clinical, etiologic, anatomic, and pathologic (CEAP) characteristics of venous insufficiency, ranging from class 0 (no visible sign of disease) to class 6 (active ulceration).
Treatment of venous reflux/venous insufficiency is aimed at reducing abnormal pressure transmission from the deep to the superficial veins. Conservative medical treatment consists of elevation of the extremities, graded compression, and wound care when indicated. While most venous reflux is secondary to incompetent valves at the saphenofemoral or saphenopopliteal junctions, reflux may also occur at incompetent valves in the perforator veins or in the deep venous system. The competence of any single valve is not static and may be pressure-dependent. For example, accessory saphenous veins may have independent saphenofemoral or saphenopopliteal junctions that become incompetent when the greater or lesser saphenous veins are eliminated and blood flow is diverted through the accessory veins.
Conventional surgical treatment consists of identifying and correcting the site of reflux typically by focusing first on identifying and correcting the site of reflux, and second on redirecting venous flow through veins with intact valves. Thus surgical treatment of varicosities associated with valve incompetence is based on the following three principles:
- Suture ligation and division of the saphenofemoral or saphenopopliteal junction is used to treat the valvular incompetence, as identified by preoperative Doppler ultrasonography.
- Stripping of the greater and/or lesser saphenous veins to remove the refluxing vein from circulation. Stripping is always preceded by vein ligation and division.
- Stab avulsion or injection sclerotherapy, at the time of initial or subsequent treatment, are used to remove varicose tributaries.
NOTE: The term "varicose veins" does not apply to the telangiectatic dermal veins (CEAP Class 1), which may be described as "spider veins" or "broken blood vessels." While abnormal in appearance, these veins typically are not associated with any symptoms (such as pain or heaviness) and their treatment is typically considered cosmetic in nature. Sclerotherapy is commonly used to treat telangiectatic dermal veins.
Saphenous Veins and Tributaries
Saphenous veins include the greater and lesser saphenous and accessory saphenous veins that travel in parallel with the greater or lesser saphenous veins. Tributaries are veins that empty into a larger vein. Treatment of venous reflux typically includes the following:
- Identification by preoperative Doppler ultrasonography of the valvular incompetence;
- Control of the most proximal point of reflux, traditionally by suture ligation of the incompetent saphenofemoral or saphenopopliteal junction;
- Removal of the superficial vein from circulation, for example by stripping of the greater and/or lesser saphenous veins; or
- Removal of varicose tributaries (at the time of the initial treatment or subsequently) by stab avulsion (phlebectomy) or injection sclerotherapy.
Minimally invasive alternatives to ligation and stripping have been investigated. These include sclerotherapy, transilluminated-powered phlebotomy, and thermal ablation using cryotherapy, high frequency radio waves (200–300 kHz), or laser energy.
The objective of sclerotherapy is to destroy the endothelium of the target vessel by injecting an irritant solution (either a detergent, osmotic solution, or chemical irritant), ultimately resulting in the occlusion of the vessel. The success of the treatment depends on accurate injection of the vessel, an adequate injectate volume and concentration of sclerosant, and compression. Historically, larger veins and very tortuous veins were not considered to be good candidates for sclerotherapy due to technical limitations. Technical improvements in sclerotherapy have included the routine use of Duplex ultrasound to target refluxing vessels, luminal compression of the vein with anesthetics, and a foam/sclerosant injectate in place of liquid sclerosant. Foam sclerosants are produced by forcibly mixing a gas (e.g., air or carbon dioxide) with a liquid sclerosant (e.g., polidocanol or sodium tetradecyl sulfate). The foam is produced at the time of treatment and is considered an off-label use. A proprietary microfoam sclerosant (Varisolve, BTG PLC, London) with a controlled density and more consistent bubble sizes is being developed in Europe.
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is performed by means of a specially designed catheter inserted through a small incision in the distal medial thigh to within 1–2 cm of the saphenofemoral junction. The catheter is slowly withdrawn, closing the vein. Laser ablation is performed similarly; a laser fiber is introduced into the greater saphenous vein under ultrasound guidance; the laser is activated and slowly removed along the course of the saphenous vein. Cryoablation uses extreme cold to cause injury to the vessel. The objective of endovenous techniques is to cause injury to the vessel, causing retraction and subsequent fibrotic occlusion of the vein. Technical developments since thermal ablation procedures were initially introduced include the use of perivenous tumescent anesthesia, which allows successful treatment of veins larger than 12 mm in diameter and helps to protect adjacent tissue from thermal damage during treatment of the lesser saphenous vein.
Transilluminated Powered Phlebectomy
Transilluminated powered phlebectomy (TIPP) is an alternative to stab avulsion or hook phlebectomy. This procedure uses 2 instruments: an illuminator which also provides irrigation, and a resector, which has an oscillating tip and can perform suction. Following removal of the saphenous vein, the illuminator is introduced via a small incision in the skin and tumescence solution (anesthetic and epinephrine) is infiltrated along the course of the varicosity. The resector is then inserted under the skin from the opposite direction, and the oscillating tip is placed directly beneath the illuminated veins to fragment and loosen the veins from the supporting tissue. Irrigation from the illuminator is used to clear the vein fragments and blood through aspiration and additional drainage holes. The illuminator and resector tips may then be repositioned, thereby reducing the number of incisions needed when compared with stab avulsion or hook phlebectomy. It has been proposed that TIPP might result in decreased operative time, decreased complications such as bruising, and faster recovery compared to the established procedures.
Treatment of Perforator Veins
Perforator veins cross through the fascia and connect the deep and superficial venous systems. Incompetent perforating veins were originally addressed with an open surgical procedure, called the Linton procedure, which involved a long medial calf incision to expose all posterior, medial, and paramedial perforators. While this procedure was associated with healing of ulcers, it was largely abandoned due to a high incidence of wound complications. The Linton procedure was subsequently modified by using a series of perpendicular skin flaps instead of a longitudinal skin flap to provide access to incompetent perforator veins in the lower part of the leg. The modified Linton procedure may be occasionally utilized for the closure of incompetent perforator veins that cannot be reached by less invasive procedures. Subfascial endoscopic perforator surgery (SEPS) is a less-invasive surgical procedure for treatment of incompetent perforators and has been reported since the mid-1980s. Guided by Duplex ultrasound scanning, small incisions are made in the skin, and the perforating veins are clipped or divided by endoscopic scissors. The operation can be performed as an outpatient procedure. Endovenous ablation of incompetent perforator veins with sclerotherapy and RFA has also been reported.
Deep vein valve replacement is being investigated.
Outcomes of interest for venous interventions include healing and recurrence, recannulation of the vein, and neovascularization. Recannulation (recanalization) is the restoration of the lumen of a vein after it has been occluded; this occurs more frequently following treatment with endovenous techniques. Neovascularization is the proliferation of new blood vessels in tissue and occurs more frequently following vein stripping. Direct comparisons of durability for endovenous and surgical procedures are complicated by these different mechanisms of recurrence. Relevant safety outcomes include the incidence of paresthesia, thermal skin injury, thrombus formation, thrombophlebitis, wound infection, and transient neurologic effects.
The following devices have received specific U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) marketing clearance for the endovenous treatment of superficial vein reflux:
- In 1999, the VNUS® Closure™ system (a radiofrequency device) received FDA clearance through the 510(k) process for "endovascular coagulation of blood vessels in patients with superficial vein reflux." The VNUS RFS and RFSFlex devices received FDA clearance in 2005 for “use in vessel and tissue coagulation including: treatment of incompetent (i.e., refluxing) perforator and tributary veins. The modified VNUS® ClosureFAST™ Intravascular Catheter received FDA clearance through the 510(k) process in 2008.
- In 2002, the Diomed 810 nm surgical laser and EVLT™ (endovenous laser therapy) procedure kit received FDA clearance through the 510(k) process, "… for use in the endovascular coagulation of the greater saphenous vein of the thigh in patients with superficial vein reflux."
- A modified Erbe Erbokryo® cryosurgical unit (Erbe USA) received FDA clearance for marketing in 2005. A variety of clinical indications are listed, including cryostripping of varicose veins of the lower limbs.
- The Trivex system is a device for transilluminated powered phlebectomy that received FDA clearance through the 510(k) process in October 2003. According to the label, the intended use is for “ambulatory phlebectomy procedures for the resection and ablation of varicose veins.”
- Varisolve® (BTG PLC, London) is a sclerosant microfoam made with a proprietary gas mix. A Phase II safety study for the FDA has been completed. In late October 2009, the sponsor submitted a request to the FDA for a protocol assessment to agree on the design, endpoints, and statistical analyses for the Phase III trial.