Nerve pain or varicose vein?

This is the game that I played in my head for a good hour last night.

When I was 19, I started to get varicose veins, much to my embarrassment. It wasn’t  much of a surprise, as I had grown up watching my mom laboriously tug on compression stockings almost every morning for years, studied with fascination the way veins stood out against the skin of her calves, running like raised highways on a map down to her ankles, where they began to pool in bumpy knots. I consciously attempted, throughout high school, to sit with my legs uncrossed, the better to encourage blood flow in my legs, the main reason why I now manspread by default when I sit (which can be a bit awkward when I forget I am wearing a shorter skirt). Varicose veins, most of the internet search results say, often occur during a woman’s pregnancy, or are induced by weight gain. I learned a lot from paranoid googling – did you know that hemorrhoids are varicose veins, just located in a different place?* Did you know that varicose veins in your ankles can actually develop into sores that bleed because the skin there is so thin? Did you know that the main treatment for varicose veins is a shudder-inducingly named process of “stripping” the veins, where the varicosities are blocked off and taken out, and other, deeper veins, are left to take on the responsibility of pumping blood? Did you know… did you know…

Forewarned is forearmed, or perhaps just makes the irony deeper. Despite all of my careful research and arranging of legs and avoidance of teen pregnancy (not hard for me, that one), I got my first varicose vein the summer after my first year of university. Maybe it was the stress? Either way, lying with my legs raised above my heart for twenty minutes each day became part of my routine, in hopes of discouraging other veins from going varicose. Grant you, my first one wasn’t even raised; just a discernable blue line down the right side of my left calf, marring the otherwise uniformly-white skin. I’ve never been proud of my legs, mind; I have knobbly knees and what my sister lovingly calls “chicken legs” – mostly skin and bone. Just enough muscle in the calves, it turns out, to put pressure on my veins. I wasn’t too concerned about how the vein looked, but more about how it felt: it hurt. Like a bitch.

The thing about varicose veins, even the teeny ones: they throb. Especially if you, fool that you are, have not put your legs up to let the pooled blood drain back into the rest of your body. The veins will remind you when you have missed this important task. Which segues nicely into talking about another thing that Dr Google taught me: Deep Vein Thrombosis (or DVT). DVT refers basically to a blood clot that forms in one of the veins in your legs. Maybe it will stay there, being painful, or perhaps you won’t feel it at all. It could travel! Yes, it could ride that vein highway up to your torso and lodge itself somewhere infinitely more dangerous than the back of your thigh – people who have had a clot travel to their lungs have had to be hospitalized because suddenly they couldn’t breathe. Some have died, because it travelled farther and jacked up their heart. Symptoms of DVT: sometimes it hurts a lot! (but sometimes it doesn’t) Sometimes you can see it in your leg! (Other times, it’s more tricky, because it’s on the back of your leg or in a spot you don’t normally look) All times, it is warmer to the touch than the skin around it, so you’d better have temperature-sensitive fingers. DVT often occurs in people living a more sedentary life, who do not get up and walk very much – truckers, people who work desk jobs, grad students, people on long-haul flights. I am not a sporty person, but I am active. I would be lying if I told you that my lifestyle is not slightly motivated by fear of a medical emergency.

Cut to over a decade later and I now have more varicose veins than I care to admit, have seen several walk-in clinic doctors about suspected DVT, have fallen off the wagon in terms of putting my legs up each day, don’t wear compression stockings in the summer, and hey, recently was involved in a nasty car crash which had me immobilized in hospital for a week recovering from lower spine surgery. I’ve been getting better, slowly, but lying down and manoevering my legs on to pillows or the arm of the couch and then expecting me to be able to get up afterwards? Not really something within the realm of possibility. My legs have been, every once in a while, complaining at me. I have been mostly ignoring them, as the pain in my very bruised lower back, my broken collarbone, and my fractured wrists has been a bit more pressing. On top of that, my left leg has been … weird since the accident. The nerves are ruffled: sensation down my shin and on the top of my foot has been muffled, as if the skin is numb but the rest isn’t, my toes have been tingly. Two weeks back, there were frightening stabs of nerve pain travelling down the entirely of my leg, which have abated thanks to healing and targeted stretches recommended by my physiotherapist, who cautioned that the sensation may come and go over the next few months. Some days my left leg feels completely normal. Most days, it feels off, in a numb-but-not-really sort of way. The pain has mostly gone.

However, last night, I couldn’t sleep. Pain throbbed and shot, intermittently, down the left side of my left calf. I cannot bend over, due to surgery, nor twist, and squinting in the dark at my leg was a futile endeavour. Was this the return of the nerve pain? Or have my varicose veins, finally fed up from the neglect and full to bursting with pooled blood that they cannot force up my leg, gone on the offensive? Was it DVT, a result of sitting too much and not exercising my leg muscles enough? Even last year, I probably would have spent the night restlessly awake, turning these questions over in my mind until the pain stopped, or I called 811 to talk to an Alberta Health Services nurse (with a visit to the walk-in clinic in the morning), or I fell asleep.

One of the benefits of recovering from surgery and being on a bunch of heavy pain medications (hey, I’m trying to find the silver lining) is falling asleep rather quickly before my brain can work itself into a tizzy. I’m left, this morning, to assume it was nerve pain, since I can’t see anything alarming on my left calf in the light of day: because I can’t get close enough to really inspect it, I have to assume the best.

Thus concludes this saga, and this pointless post, until the next time I have this exact same issue and the exact same thoughts ensue. I don’t think I’m alone in my hypochondriac tendencies but I think this one might be unique to me, right now. What do you think?



*Avoided by not straining to defecate. Aren’t you glad for that knowledge? You’re welcome.

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