Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of minimally invasive techniques to manage varicose veins: a systematic review and economic evaluation

Authors: Carroll C, Hummel S, Leaviss J, Ren S, Stevens J, Everson-Hock E, Cantrell A, Stevenson M, Michaels J

Journal: Health Technology Assessment Volume: 17 Issue: 48

Publication date: October 2013



Carroll C, Hummel S, Leaviss J, Ren S, Stevens J, Everson-Hock E, et al.Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of minimally invasive techniques to manage varicose veins: a systematic review and economic evaluation. Health Technol Assess 2013;17(48)

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Varicose veins are enlarged, visibly lumpy knotted veins, usually in the legs. Uncomplicated varicose veins can cause major discomfort and some complications. They are part of chronic venous disease (CVD), which is reported to have a substantial negative impact on health-related quality of life (HRQoL). Traditional treatments for varicose veins involve surgical stripping and ligation and liquid sclerotherapy (LS), but can be invasive and painful. New minimally invasive treatments offer an alternative. These treatments typically involve use of laser, radiofrequency or foam sclerosant. They are increasingly widely used and offer potential benefits such as reduced complications, faster recovery, fewer physical limitations and improved quality of life.


The aim of this report is to evaluate the clinical effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of the minimally invasive techniques of foam sclerotherapy (FS), endovenous laser ablation (EVLA) and radiofrequency ablation (RFA) in comparison with other techniques, including traditional surgical techniques, LS and conservative management, in the management of varicose veins.

Data sources

A systematic search was made of 11 bibliographic databases of published and unpublished literature from their inception to July 2011: MEDLINE; EMBASE; Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature; The Cochrane Library; Biological Abstracts; Science Citation Index (SCI); Social Sciences Citation Index; Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Science; UK Clinical Research Network; Current Controlled Trials; and

Review methods

A systematic review of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the clinical effectiveness of minimally invasive techniques compared with other treatments, principally surgical stripping, in terms of recurrence of varicose veins, retreatment and clinical symptoms, as measured by the Venous Clinical Severity Score (VCSS), pain and quality of life. Network meta-analysis and exploratory cost-effectiveness modelling were performed.


The literature search identified 1453 unique citations, of which 34 RCTs (54 papers) satisfied the criteria for the clinical effectiveness review. The minimally invasive techniques reported clinical outcomes similar to surgery. Rates of recurrence were slightly lower for EVLA, RFA and FS, especially for longer follow-up periods; VCSS score was lower for EVLA and FS than for stripping, but slightly higher for RFA; short-term pain was less for FS and RFA but higher for EVLA; higher quality-of-life scores were reported for all evaluated interventions than for stripping. Differences between treatments were therefore negligible in terms of clinical outcomes, so the treatment with the lowest cost appears to be most cost-effective. Our central estimate is that total FS costs were lowest and FS is marginally more effective than stripping. However, this result was sensitive to the model time horizon. Threshold analysis indicated that EVLA and RFA might be considered cost-effective if their costs are equivalent to stripping. These findings are subject to uncertainty on account of the risk of bias present in the evidence base and the variation in costs.


The relative clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the techniques are principally based on rates of post-operative technical recurrence rather than symptomatic recurrence, as this was the reported outcome in all trials. The true proportion of treated individuals who are likely to present with symptoms of recurrence requiring retreatment is therefore not certain. A figure reflecting the likely proportion of treated individuals who would experience symptomatic recurrence requiring retreatment (with its associated costs), therefore, had to be calculated by the authors based on a small number of studies. The findings of this report also need to be verified by data from future trials with longer follow-up and using more standardised outcome measures.


This assessment of the currently available evidence suggests there is little to choose between the minimally invasive techniques in terms of efficacy or cost, and each offers a viable, clinically effective alternative to stripping. FS might offer the most cost-effective alternative to stripping, within certain time parameters. High-quality RCT evidence is needed. Future trials should aim to measure and report outcomes in a standardised manner, which would permit more efficient pooling of their results.

Study registration

PROSPERO number CRD42011001355.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme.

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