The human body has a remarkable ability to heal itself. The skin, liver, and even your brain can bounce back from major damage and injury. Although our regenerative powers are considerable, it does have its limits. Veins, the delicate tissues that circulate blood from the body back to the heart, are one of them. To get a better appreciation for what happens when veins are damaged, take a moment to consider the important role that veins play in your cardiovascular function and the importance of that system in your overall health.
What Are Veins & What Do They Do?
Blood is the body’s ultra-efficient transport system that provides everything organs, tissues, and cells need to live. Its main function is to transport oxygen. This element is essential for cellular respiration, a process that allows cells to metabolize the energy from our food and, simply put, to do their jobs. Without oxygen, our cells—and thus, ourselves—would die.
However, this is just half of the cardiovascular process. Once all vital nutrients have been deposited, blood also acts as the cleanup crew taking with it waste materials like carbon dioxide. This important function is carried out by veins, blood vessels dedicated to moving oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart. There, blood can get a fresh infusion of oxygen and other cellular necessities, and equally importantly, dump the CO2 byproduct.
The removal of this gas waste is crucial. Otherwise, carbon dioxide buildup (known as hypercapnia), can damage organs and tissues and lead to a number of complications. When veins are damaged, not only does the body become less efficient at this process, but the blood itself that fails to reach the heart ends up pooling in the direction of gravity: down. For this reason, many of the consequences of damaged veins end up involving the legs.
Can Veins Heal Themselves?
The good news is that yes, veins can heal themselves, however, only to a certain degree. When veins are damaged they can take years to repair. Even when this occurs, healed veins never recover completely. At most, a damaged vein will only ever regain a portion of its previous blood-circulating capabilities.
If vein damage is too extensive your body will abandon that vein altogether and rather than try and salvage the blood vessel it will create a new one by a process called angiogenesis. This is much more common in instances of intravenous drug use, where frequent and improper needle insertion methods are coupled with inadequate tools or sterilization.
Although veins are numerous, if enough of them are damaged, there can be lasting impacts on the individual’s overall health. In addition to the negative impact of impaired blood flow, vein damage can also incur respiratory damage as well.
Types of Vein Damage
The ultimate determinant of whether damaged veins will heal—or not—is the type of damage they’ve incurred.
Blown veins are one of the most common types of damage. Also known as a ruptured vein, this injury can be relatively harmless resulting in simply bruising or discoloration. However, complications can develop and are much more common with illicit drug use injection. The high acidity of injectable drugs such as meth, heroin, cocaine, prescription stimulants, and prescription opioids can cause decay of tissues near the injection site.
Sometimes mistaken for a blown vein is a collapsed vein. This is a condition when the vein lining is swollen or collapsed and results in impeded blood flow. Usually, this type of vein damage is temporary. However, continued use can result in more permanent damage.
Scarred veins are the most severe of vein injuries and are always permanent. It is often the result of previous vein damage that resulted in impaired or completely blocked blood flow. These incidences can cause blood clots which, if unresolved, will turn into scar tissue that causes veins to narrow and overall circulation to slow.
Side Effects of Vein Damage
The consequences of damaged veins from IV use can result in several conditions ranging from superficial to potentially dangerous and life-threatening:
- Swelling of the legs or ankles
- Leg pain when standing (aching, throbbing, heaviness)
- Leg cramps
- Tightness in calves
- Leg weakness
- Itchy legs
- Leathery-looking skin around legs or ankles
- Leg ulcers
- Varicose veins
- Discoloration around the ankles (caused by broken blood vessels)
- Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots)
- Vein rupturing
- Secondary lymphedema
- Pulmonary embolism
Despite how tiny and numerous they are (there are about 100,000 miles of blood vessels in the body) even one tiny kink in the vital role they play in circulation, can cripple the entire system. When IV drug use is involved, the damage is often permanent and widespread. These consequences are just a few of the complications that can arise from drug addiction. Learn more about the effects of different addictive substances and the long-term impact they can have on your health.