Gout: An Old Disease Flares Up Again
Here in the U.S., we did away with monarchy centuries ago. So why is the "disease of kings" now on the rise? It seems our modern lifestyle is fueling the resurgence of gout.
What is gout?
Gout is a particularly painful type of arthritis. Anyone who's suffered a gout attack in his or her big toe has no doubt how excruciating this condition can be.
Gout results from high blood levels of a compound called uric acid. Uric acid forms when your body breaks down purine, a substance common in foods like dried beans and peas, asparagus, salmon, organ meats, and mushrooms. That's how the condition got its royal legacy—tales of kings waking up with a painful toe after a night of overindulgence.
High levels of uric acid can cause sharp, needle-like crystals to grow in between joints, causing redness, swelling, warmth, and severe pain. While the big toe is the most common site for gout, the feet, ankles, knees, hands, and wrists may also be affected.
Who gets gout?
These days, gout can affect almost anyone, although it occurs mainly in men. Besides a diet high in purine, risk factors include:
Drinking lots of alcohol, especially beer
Genetics—many people with gout have a family history of the disease
Taking certain medications, including diuretics, aspirin, and niacin
People with kidney problems are also more likely to develop gout because the kidneys normally filter out excess uric acid. Other medical problems that have been linked to gout include high blood pressure, an underactive thyroid, and psoriasis.
How is gout treated?
If gout symptoms strike you, see your doctor. Treatment can bring relief within hours. Untreated, a gout attack may last anywhere from three to 10 days.
Your doctor will likely take a sample of your blood or joint fluid and test it for uric acid. Then, he or she may recommend anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids, which can be taken by mouth or injected into the joint. These drugs, or other medications that reduce uric acid in the blood, can also be taken over time to reduce the risk for flare-ups and for complications such as kidney stones and kidney disease.
Along with kidney problems, gout has been linked to a higher risk for heart attacks and heart disease. Fortunately, many of the lifestyle changes that improve gout—including maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, drinking alcohol only in moderation, and eating a low-fat, low-salt diet—can keep your heart healthy, too.