As I sat in a plushy chair on Thursday morning, adjusting my highly fashionable faux-denim balloon exam shorts, I looked down from the charts of vein systems on the wall at the small, almost imperceptible lump on my right leg. That little lump would lead me to a very surprising discovery.
When I first started as a contributing writer for an Austin-area vein specialist a little over a year ago, I knew nothing about vein health—and if you had told me that mine was at risk, I probably would have laughed.
I even wrote about how varicose veins and venous reflux are often considered to affect only the elderly, but can occur in younger people too. I just didn’t think I would be one of them.
It Started At Zumba
The night before my 30th birthday, I went to Zumba, one of my favorite ways to exercise (and overall favorite things to do). I had to walk out less than halfway through—the sides of both of my calf muscles were throbbing, sending rushing waves down to the tops of my feet, which in turn ached and tingled. This wasn’t a new thing, but tonight the pain was too much, even in my compression socks, and I drove home bawling.
The truth is, I crossed paths with this strange pain almost a year prior, also in Zumba. I’d been hitting the salsa and cumbia steps hard for a good month or two, and one day the side of my right calf was just screaming in pain.
This wasn’t a typical muscle soreness—it was more of a dull, throbbing ache—and when pausing to stretch and then jumping back into the routine made it many times worse, I had to stop and sit out. A shooting tingle had joined the ache and the usually-minor lump on my leg grew to many times its size.
I’d first noticed the lump 15 years ago, on drill team in high school. Back then it only popped out when I squatted, but never caused me any pain, and I assumed it was part of the muscle and didn’t think twice about it- until now.
Caving Into Compression
Back at home, icing the spot, I pored over pages and pages of different Google searches and results trying to sleuth my way to an explanation for the lump. After considering the limited insight internet research can bring you when it comes to the complexities of the body, I decided I had most likely herniated part of my muscle, something noted as common in the calves of runners and triathletes.
I very stubbornly and forlornly agreed to stop going to Zumba for a while. My dad asked if I wanted to borrow a pair of his compression socks. I literally laughed out loud. I’d written about them extensively at this point but never pictured myself in a pair.
“You mean those things for varicose veins? I don’t think I need those,” I said, but he explained that they helped for all kinds of things including just being on your feet, so I obliged and jokingly sent my boss at the writing gig a picture of myself wearing one.
A few weeks later, I had ordered a couple pairs of my own. At least they came in pink.
When I Kept Pushing, It Got Worse
Maybe if I had heeded the warnings of my body back then, and done more to nurture instead of push my legs, I wouldn’t have walked out of Zumba crying a year later. At the advice of my neighbor, a professional physical therapist, I did cut back significantly with the intensity and frequency of my workouts. Although, I just couldn’t quit Zumba, or PiYo, or sweaty vinyasa yoga sequences—and even though I religiously wore my pink sock, the pain got worse, eventually mirroring in the exact same spot on the left leg.
Eventually, I couldn’t get through more than one song while playing “Just Dance” with my little brother and sister.
Eventually, I couldn’t go dancing or to see live music without “the throb” setting in.
Eventually, I couldn’t hold standing yoga poses like warrior or triangle without waves and rushes and aches.
Eventually, it smacked me right in the face that all of the symptoms I was experiencing were the exact same ones I’d been writing about.
And that’s when I finally decided to face the truth that my young veins were struggling. So I called and made an appointment at Bunker Vein & Imaging Center.
Experience is The Best Teacher
As informed as I previously considered myself on matters of venous health, I can’t describe how vastly different it has been to understand it via experience rather than intellect. That alone has probably given me enough material for 5 more blog posts.
In the two weeks between my initial screening and the ultrasound on Thursday, I became exponentially more aware of the sensations in my legs, which I easily could have been tuning out or minimizing for years. If you’ve never viscerally felt the blood traveling through every inch of your vein, let me tell you, it’ll freak you right out.
Eventually, I could feel the stop-start, spotty, clogged flow of blood through/near the lump, like a bent garden hose.
Eventually, I realized the pains on the sides and bottoms of my feet were from the blood pooling and pulsing in the veins there.
Eventually, even cooking a full meal on my feet (something I could easily do for many hours a day before) became a challenge.
Eventually, I found myself following all the advice I’d written about, taking breaks many times a day to elevate my legs up a wall.
Let My Diagnosis Be Your Early Warning
And on Thursday morning, Dr. Bunker confirmed that I have venous insufficiency in both legs. All 4 of the major veins in my legs are refluxing, or allowing blood to flow the wrong way, to varying degrees. The valves which control the flow of blood in our veins are supposed to stay open for a maximum of 1/2 second. At certain points, my valves are staying open for over 3 or 4 seconds, more than 8 times longer than normal.
I’m incredibly lucky and blessed that I just so happened to write for a vein specialist and was unknowingly collecting clues for myself. Otherwise, I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to put the puzzle together, or to go in to get checked. Maybe I never would have.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience. I’m still learning. And if there’s one thing I could tell you, it’s this—listen to your body, and don’t assume that your youth, vigor, or fitness level precludes you from vein disease or any other health issue.
I don’t fit many of the typical risk factors for vein disease—I’ve never been pregnant, don’t have a known family history, and am in relatively good shape. I’m still not quite sure how I developed it. Maybe it has to do with being 8 weeks premature, or having 2 different sized legs/feet, or working on my feet as a hostess or seated at a desk job.
Maybe it all happened so that I could write to you about it with more compassion, experience, and depth—to inspire you to take proactive care of your precious body. We only get one.
Please, learn from my mistakes. If you’ve noticed a dull, aching throb, rushing wave-like feelings, or light burning or itching at certain points on your feet and legs, especially after being on your feet, call Bunker Vein & Imaging at (512) 726-0599 for a free screening. Don’t wait until it gets worse. As I learned on my 30th birthday, it will.