What don't you know about keeping your legs healthy and veins pumping in tip-top order? (For Spectrum Health Beat)
What don’t you know about keeping your legs healthy and veins pumping in tip-top order? (For Spectrum Health Beat)

A woman with healthy legs can strut her stuff not just with confidence, but with comfort, too.

The problem is, there’s a lot of information out there, and some of it is downright conflicting.

Cross your legs, or don’t? High heels sometimes, always, or never? On the march to better health, a gal should be able to separate fact from fiction.

So we asked the experts.

Spectrum Health vascular specialist and surgeon Eanas Yassa, MD, and Spectrum Health Vein Center vascular specialist surgeon Jennifer Watson, MD, said they are happy to help us sort out the mysteries, myths and medicine.

OK to cross those legs

Country superstar Miranda Lambert’s hit, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” admonished the ladies: “Cross your legs, dot your eyes and never let ’em see you cry.”

Indeed, the June Cleaver generation hailed the practice of sitting with one’s legs crossed at the knee—or side-swept and crossed at the ankle—as the epitome of ladylike behavior.

Women everywhere dutifully followed suit until, well … until it no longer seemed so wonderful.

Was it a secret campaign to break mama’s heart after all? Or just a new era of women wearing pants? We’ll probably never know.

Whatever the case, someone rethought the spiel about leg crossing. The pendulum had been set in motion long ago, and now it was swinging back. Women pleaded with their leg-crossing daughters, sisters and friends: “Don’t do it, you’ll get varicose veins!”

Just like that, opinion had shifted. But who is right?

When to see a specialist

Got leg problems? Doctors Eanas Yassa and Jennifer Watson urge sufferers not to brush symptoms aside.

“Diagnosing your condition is the key to getting relief,” Dr. Yassa said. “And by diagnosing a condition early, we may be able to halt or slow progression. In most cases, we can minimize or end discomfort and pain.”

If you experience these symptoms, see a vascular specialist promptly.

  • Pain or cramping in one leg while walking.
  • Muscle group cramping that regularly appears after walking a certain distance.
  • Itchy, red or tender area on leg.
  • Ulcer on leg or foot that won’t heal.
  • Nighttime pain in the foot or toes, which is relieved by hanging your foot off the bed.

The Spectrum Health Vein Center offers many screenings and tests to diagnose your condition and help improve how your legs look and feel. Call 616.267.8346 to learn more.

Dr. Yassa is happy to set pop history straight.

“Nobody seems to know where the varicose-veins-from-leg-crossing story came from, but we’ve all heard it for years,” she said.

The doctor revealed the truth: “In fact, it’s a completely unfounded belief. There is absolutely zero clinical evidence that any increased vascular risk or the formation of varicose veins may occur from crossing your legs anywhere.”

Yassa offered a possible theory on the widespread trust in the myth: “Many people think that blood flow is cut off from crossing your legs at the knee or ankle. They also associate numbness, or your legs falling asleep, with lack of blood flow. That is false. Numbness or pins-and-needles sensations are nerve related, not circulatory.”

So, whatever your preference, and as long as it’s OK with mom, you should do what you want with your legs. We repeat: Your veins are safe when your legs are crossed.

Some days are for heels

Popular songsters Lady Antebellum also sang on the subject of vein health, with catchy mentions of “sky-high leather boots” and “platforms that wanna stroll on the city sidewalks.”

Such songs can, admittedly, cause any fun-loving woman to run for her heels.

But wait—what about the widely accepted Rule No. 2? Wearing high heels can cause varicose veins.

This time, Dr. Watson reports: “There may be a shred of clinical evidence that causes us to consider the possibility.”

She cites a study published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery.

The study assessed the influence of high-heeled shoes on vein function. Thirty women with no vein-related symptoms underwent three clinical measurements of venous sufficiency in each of four different scenarios: barefoot, then after controlled periods of wearing 3-centimeter heels, 7-centimeter stilettos and 7-centimeter platform heels. Readings were compared to each other and to benchmarking standards.

The conclusion: “The continuous use of high heels tends to provoke venous hypertension in the lower limbs and may represent a causal factor of venous disease symptoms.”

Plainspoken: Maybe high heels aren’t so great. But Dr. Watson clarifies that the key word in the study is “continuous.”

“If you are wearing high heels to go out for the evening or to your office some days, that is not ‘continuous,’” she said. “To help you find a safe balance, be aware that persistent patterns of continuous wear—morning to night, day in and day out—can increase your risk.”

Don’t just sit there

Both vascular specialists reported that for men and women alike, the real smoking gun to watch for is the dreaded desk job, where workers park it in a chair for long hours.

Said Dr. Yassa: “This is important. Sitting for long periods of time allows blood to pool in the lower leg veins. Chronic sitting not only worsens venous symptoms, it also contributes to their progression and sets the stage for more serious conditions, like deep vein thrombosis and blood clots.”

She recommended frequent short walks, and also suggested employees should inquire about a work station that allows for periods of standing. While long periods of standing come with some risk, the added mobility at least gives an employee an alternative to sitting all day.

Drs. Yassa and Watson agreed that pregnancy, diabetes, smoking, obesity and family history present real risk factors for venous problems.

Similarly, women ages 35 and older who are taking hormone therapy should be especially diligent about monitoring leg symptoms.

“We offer free screenings to anyone, male or female, who has not had previous venous intervention,” Dr. Watson said. “Painless ultrasound and other simple tests can tell us how your veins are functioning, where problems exist and lead the way to the best treatments.”