Belfast woman Paula's varicose veins faded after less than hour's treatment costing £2,599
Paula Gracey, from Belfast, tries a new, non-surgical procedure at Kingsbridge Private Hospital in Belfast for an unsightly condition that is the bane of many women
Summer may have officially arrived, albeit in name only, but for me the usual anticipation of warmer days, lighter clothes and holidays in the sun has always been accompanied by the added concern of having to cover up my legs with long dresses and jeans and tonnes of fake tan in order to hide the horrible little spider/thread veins that have developed on my ankles and legs over the years.
It is nothing to do with lifestyle, I am told, as I have always been an exercise nut... up at 6am every day for my beloved Vinyasa Yoga practice, hopping on my spin bike, walking, swimming and, up until undergoing back surgery four years ago, I ran nearly every day, too. Nor is it diet as I eat very healthily.
But varicose veins do have a tendency to run in families where genetics can carry a weakness in the vein wall. This is no surprise as my mum has varicose veins and my brother even admits to a couple, so it seems it was bound to happen.
Research shows that varicose veins affect one third of people at some point in their lives. Some factors can add to the likelihood, like pregnancy, being overweight or working in a job where you either stand or sit for long periods.
They range from the little blue spider or thread veins that began on my ankles and then appeared in little starbursts on the back of my calf, to those huge bulging, ropey veins you see on older people and which can cause genuine discomfort and pain.
Mine did not hurt at all. My concerns were mainly cosmetic, except for a weird feeling behind my right knee, which I later discovered was a larger vein that needed treatment.
More women than men complain about varicose veins, but that is mainly because women are more likely to have their legs on show and therefore the cosmetic aspect is of greater concern.
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So, this year, I decided enough was enough and, having read about the BBC's Julia Bradbury being treated with a new, non-surgical procedure, resulting in fabulous-looking legs she was proud to bare in shorts again, I decided to find out more.
The only treatment I had ever heard of was surgical "stripping" of the veins, which sounds horrific. I had memories of my mum's friend having it done years ago, and spending a long time in pain and on crutches. I would rather live with my veins, thank you.
My research led me to Kingsbridge Private Hospital on Belfast's Lisburn Road which, I discovered, is a leader in vascular medicine now specialising in non-surgical treatments.
I was very impressed with all the information and testimonial videos on their website, especially as there was no overnight stay involved... you can walk in and back out again an hour later. I could wait no longer.
There is a price, of course... £2,599, to be exact, for all I needed done.
It sounds a lot, and it is, in one go - but not especially when measured against the cosmetic procedures, invasive and non-invasive, that people pay out for every month like hair extensions - £130 at least initially and then £30 maintenance every couple of months, eyelash extensions £25, acrylic nails £25 a time, lip augmentation £200, or cheek fillers £350, at least.
Luckily, I'd some savings in a credit union, initially earmarked for a new bathroom.
But the real bottom line, for me, is what means the most to you, what gives you the most confidence and what is vexing you more? The bathroom could wait another summer, my legs couldn't.
Decision made, I got in touch and booked a consultation with consultant vascular surgeon Alistair Lewis, who was in the videos online.
After a quick chat we got straight on with an examination of my veins, which involved some cold jelly applied to my legs and what was basically an ultrasound scan.
My veins appeared on the monitor screen beside me, and Mr Lewis described what we were looking at as he moved the scanner along my legs - it was fascinating.
It turned out the weird feeling behind my right knee was a vein that was on its way to becoming troublesome and needed to be treated first, before the spider veins, due to the risk of re-occurrence.
Kingsbridge perform three non-surgical treatments: VNUS, which is a vein closure procedure using radiofrequency energy; ultrasound guided foam sclerotherapy; and microsclerotherapy for thread veins.
The VNUS radiofrequency ablation is what I required for the bad vein, a minimally invasive procedure which is the new alternative to that old 'stripping' operation.
Results show that it is as good as the surgical operation, performed under local anaesthetic. It is also an out-patient procedure, so you can return to work the same day if desired with very little, if any, discomfort.
The only slightly uncomfortable bit was the anaesthetic, to freeze the skin, going in, but it was all over in a flash.
Then, unbeknown to me at the time, a small needle was inserted into the vein and the ablation catheter was passed over a wire, into the vein. The catheter was activated and radiofrequency waves closed up the vein from the inside. I did not feel any pain during the procedure, just a strange feeling of pressure on the back of my leg and knee. The catheter was then removed and we were all done.
The procedure took about 20 to 25 minutes in total. Then, it was time to deal with those pesky spider, or thread, veins around my ankles and lower legs. For this, the procedure used is microsclerotherapy, which is performed using a foam-like substance which is injected into the veins using the tiniest needle you have ever seen. No anaesthetic is required and you can hardly even feel it.
The best part is that when the veins are injected, they disappear before your eyes. Even two lovely nurses, who must see it all the time, came over to watch. "We love this part," they said. I couldn't believe it!
It was explained to me that although they initially disappear, they actually come back again for a short while, but what happens is, the veins collapse and die and the body basically absorbs them, so they will eventually all be gone.
I was thrilled to get even a short-lived glimpse of what my new legs would eventually look like - I couldn't wait. However, for the time being, my wee skinny white legs (I'd stopped fake tanning so the consultant could get the full impact of my veins in all their glory) looked like they had been eaten by a plague of mozzies because of all the tiny injection sites, but I didn't care.
I was focusing on the bigger picture and planning all those summer outfits - short skirts are us again.
My bubble was burst shortly after the procedure when the two nurses returned with the most hideous-looking full-length compression stockings... and getting those babies on and off is no mean feat.
When the three of us finally got them onto my rather long pins, I looked like I had Barbie legs - a bit plastic and a weird colour - but I was told it was only for two weeks and was absolutely necessary to make sure the veins stayed collapsed for the procedures to work.
For the first week, you have to wear them day and night, and for the second week just in the daytime. Boy was I glad at the end of those two weeks. I knew it was all going to be worth it, but I won't miss the daily struggle of getting those stockings on and off again.
There was no pain after the procedure and the only reminder that I had anything done at all (apart from the stockings) was what felt like a bruise at the site where the catheter went into my calf. After that, nothing.
After the two weeks, I took a good look in the mirror at my legs, and the main thing was the troublesome wiggly vein at the back of my knee was gone completely. Some of the spider veins were fading slightly. Others looked a bit darker and were still visible, but I expected that. It takes a while for them to become re-absorbed by the body and disappear completely, but I had it all to look forward to.
Five weeks later, it was back to Kingsbridge for my follow-up appointment to see how my veins were doing. I had been watching closely as the spider veins began to disappear. There were by no means gone completely, but I could definitely see them fading.
All looked well and Mr Lewis decided on a few more injections to "tidy up" some of them and to zap a couple I had forgotten to point out the last time. He said most people do this on their review appointment. Thankfully, no compression stockings required, so that was it, all done.
Fake tan back on and a spring in my step, I can now look forward to summer.
Should it pour the entire time this summer, I will still have my legs out for all to see.
For more information, visit Kingsbridge Private Hospital's website at 3fivetwo.com or telephone 0845 600 6352
Radio frequency VNUS: £2,088