What Is Gout?
Sudden, Intense Joint Pain
Gout is a form of arthritis that causes the sudden onset of intense pain and swelling in the joints, which also may be warm and red. Attacks frequently occur at night and can be triggered by stressful events, alcohol or drugs, or the presence of another illness. Early attacks usually subside within 3 to 10 days, even without treatment, and the next attack may not occur for months or even years.
Where Gout Usually Occurs
Sometime during the course of the disease, many patients will develop gout in the big toe. Gout frequently affects joints in the lower part of the body such as the ankles, heels, knees, or toes.
Who is at Risk?
Adult men, particularly those between the ages of 40 and 50, are more likely to develop gout than women, who rarely develop the disease before menstruation ends.
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A Buildup of Uric Acid
Before an attack, needle-like crystals of uric acid build up in connective tissue, in the joint space between two bones, or in both. Uric acid is a substance that results from the breakdown of purines, which are part of all human tissue and are found in many foods. Normally, uric acid is dissolved in the blood and passed through the kidneys into the urine, where it is eliminated.
If there is an increase in the production of uric acid or if the kidneys do not eliminate enough uric acid from the body, levels of it build up in the blood (a condition called hyperuricemia). Hyperuricemia also may result when a person eats too many high-purine foods, such as liver, dried beans and peas, anchovies, and gravies. Hyperuricemia is not a disease, and by itself it is not dangerous. However, if too many uric acid crystals form as a result of hyperuricemia, gout can develop. The crystals form and build up in the joint, causing inflammation.
Stages of Gout
Gout can progress through four stages.
- Asymptomatic (without symptoms) hyperuricemia. In this stage, a person has elevated levels of uric acid in the blood (hyperuricemia), but no other symptoms. Treatment is usually not required.
- Acute gout, or acute gouty arthritis. In this stage, hyperuricemia has caused uric acid crystals to build up in joint spaces. This leads to a sudden onset of intense pain and swelling in the joints, which also may be warm and very tender. An acute (sudden) attack commonly occurs at night and can be triggered by stressful events, alcohol or drugs, or the presence of another illness. Attacks usually subside within 3 to 10 days, even without treatment, and the next attack may not occur for months or even years. Over time, however, attacks can last longer and occur more frequently.
- Interval or intercritical gout. This is the period between acute attacks. In this stage, a person does not have any symptoms.
- Chronic tophaceous (toe FAY shus) gout. This is the most disabling stage of gout. It usually develops over a long period, such as 10 years. In this stage, the disease may have caused permanent damage to the affected joints and sometimes to the kidneys. With proper treatment, most people with gout do not progress to this advanced stage.