Phleboliths are small blood clots that calcify or harden over time. Discovered in the late 1800s and sometimes referred to as “vein stones,” these round or oval masses usually develop in the lower pelvic region, more often on the left side of the pelvic area than the right, although the reason for this is unknown. Occurring slightly more in women than in men, phleboliths are most prevalent in people over 40.
Phleboliths are the result of pressure build-up within a vein, which causes blood clots to form and calcify over time. The origin and development, or pathogenesis, of phleboliths is still not fully understood, but experts have identified several factors that contribute to their formation. These can be broken into two categories: natural causes and behavioral causes.
Natural causes include aging, pregnancy, abnormal development of the veins or venous malformation, liver disease, which can cause a lack of blood flow and usually causes abdominal or intestinal phleboliths, the presence of cancer or atrial fibrillation, and diverticulitis, a digestive tract disorder. Interestingly, varicose veins are both a cause and symptom of phleboliths. In young people, phleboliths form with the growth of what are usually benign tumors.
In addition to natural causes, doctors associate certain behaviors with phleboliths. Among these are long periods of inactivity, such as long flights or car rides. Another is straining while going to the bathroom. Eating a low-fiber diet high in processed foods can also lead to phleboliths, as can taking oral contraception, smoking, dehydration, and obesity.
The majority of people with phleboliths exhibit no symptoms. However, some may experience pain in the pelvis and lower back. Other symptoms include chronic constipation, thrombosis (the formation of blood clots inside blood vessels) which slows down blood flow, and varicose veins.
Phleboliths are found in the pelvic region approximately 98% of the time. Only rarely will they occur in other areas, and typically those are limited to the kidneys, stomach, esophagus, and intestines. For the most part, people with phleboliths are asymptomatic, so their detection is usually by accident when a doctor tests for other conditions. When symptoms are present, they mirror those of kidney stones, which is usually the suspected condition that leads to the discovery of phleboliths. Typical tests include X-ray, MRI, and ultrasound.
If phleboliths become problematic, doctors may suggest home remedies, or non-surgical or surgical treatments.
Home remedies include heat therapy to ease pain. Heat helps dilate blood vessels and promote blood flow, and can be achieved simply by placing a moist, warm cloth, hot water bottle, or heating pad on the affected area. Analgesics can help alleviate pain. If possible, elevating the affected area above the heart to affect blood flow will also provide relief.
If the symptoms of phleboliths become so severe that home remedies are ineffective, doctors may recommend non-surgical treatments. Sclerotherapy, a treatment for varicose veins, includes the injection of a salt solution or radioactive dye into the affected veins. This action irritates the lining of the vein and causes it to collapse and close. Another option for closing veins with phleboliths is endovascular laser therapy or endovenous laser therapy. This method uses a laser fiber attached to a needle or catheter to close the vein.
In some instances, home remedies and medicinal treatments cannot alleviate the symptoms of phleboliths. In such cases, a surgeon may need to remove both the affected vein and surrounding tissue. This is quite an invasive procedure, and so is usually treated as a last result.
Health professionals recommend daily exercise for a variety of reasons, and preventing phleboliths is certainly one of them. Even those unable to exercise should be vigilant in moving around periodically throughout the day. Staying hydrated, eating a diet rich in high-fiber foods, and avoiding tight clothing that could restrict blood flow can also keep phleboliths at bay.
Some medications can help prevent phleboliths, including anti-inflammatories. For those seeking a more organic or natural approach, a variety of anti-inflammatory herbs could help, including turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, and cloves.
While phleboliths are most often harmless, their presence could be an indicator of a more serious health issue. Being vigilant about attending regular doctor visits and age-appropriate testing to rule out those conditions is of utmost importance. Even if a person is diagnosed with phleboliths, more serious symptoms may never present and, if they do, there are a variety of treatment options available.
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