Veins return blood to the heart from all the organs of the body. The large veins parallel the large arteries and often share the same name, but the pathways of the venous system are more difficult to trace than those of the arteries. Many unnamed small veins form irregular networks and connect with the large veins.
Many veins, particularly those in the arms and legs, have one-way valves. Each valve consists of two flaps (cusps or leaflets) with edges that meet. Blood, as it moves toward the heart, pushes the cusps open like a pair of one-way swinging doors. If gravity or muscle contractions try to pull the blood backward or if blood begins to back up in a vein, the cusps are pushed closed, preventing backward flow. Thus, valves help the return of blood to the heart—by opening when the blood flows toward the heart and closing when blood might flow backward because of gravity.
The body has
Superficial veins, located in the fatty layer under the skin
Deep veins, located in the muscles and along the bones
Short veins, called connecting veins, link the superficial and deep veins.
The deep veins play a significant role in propelling blood toward the heart. The one-way valves in deep veins prevent blood from flowing backward, and the muscles surrounding the deep veins compress them, helping force the blood toward the heart, just as squeezing a toothpaste tube ejects toothpaste. The powerful calf muscles are particularly important, forcefully compressing the deep veins in the legs with every step. The deep veins carry 90% or more of the blood from the legs toward the heart.
Deep Veins of the Legs
One-Way Valves in the Veins
One-way valves consist of two flaps (cusps or leaflets) with edges that meet. These valves help veins return blood to the heart. As blood moves toward the heart, it pushes the cusps open like a pair of one-way swinging doors (shown on the left). If gravity momentarily pulls the blood backward or if blood begins to back up in a vein, the cusps are immediately pushed closed, preventing backward flow (shown on the right).
Superficial veins have the same type of valves as deep veins, but they are not surrounded by muscle. Thus, blood in the superficial veins is not forced toward the heart by the squeezing action of muscles, and it flows more slowly than blood in the deep veins. Much of the blood that flows through the superficial veins is diverted into the deep veins through the many connecting veins between the deep and superficial veins. Valves in the connecting veins allow blood to flow from the superficial veins into the deep veins but not vice versa.
Problems With the Veins
The main problems that affect the veins include the following:
Abnormal connections between the arteries and veins called arteriovenous fistulas Arteriovenous Fistula An arteriovenous fistula is an abnormal channel between an artery and a vein. Rarely, a large fistula may divert enough blood to cause symptoms of reduced blood flow in the affected arm or leg... read more or arteriovenous malformations, which may be present at birth or develop later in life
Inflammation of a superficial vein due to a blood clot (thrombophlebitis Superficial Venous Thrombosis Superficial venous thrombosis is inflammation and clotting in a superficial vein, usually in the arms or legs. The skin over the vein becomes red, swollen, and painful. Doctors examine the area... read more )
Defects that lead to swelling (distention) of the vein (varicose veins Varicose Veins Varicose veins are abnormally enlarged superficial veins in the legs. Varicose veins may ache or cause itching or a sensation of tiredness. Doctors can detect varicose veins by examining the... read more )
The veins in the legs are particularly at risk of blood clotting or swelling of the vein because when a person is standing, blood must flow upward from the leg veins, against gravity, to reach the heart.