I hadn’t ever expected to blog about gout, but a few things have pushed it to the forefront of my attention lately.
One- I discovered that a friend my age has it quite badly and two: I didn’t realize this is just one of the many forms of arthritis (there are more than 100- yikes!)!
Having decided to inform myself, I found it was a timely topic- The Lancet has just had a leading article on it and most of it is pretty readable for an educated person, not just for medicos. Here’s a link to the Abstract, but you’ll have to use your connections in the business or a science library to read the whole caboodle:
Richette P and Bardin T (2010) Gout. Lancet. Jan 23;375(9711):318-28.
The docs have provided a beaut explanation of the current state of gout knowledge and how to treat it and relieve the symptoms. Sufferers are [rightly] much more vocal about the symptoms themselves- gout hurts to high heaven wherever you get it! [Insert loud groans and screams here]. It certainly laid low my friend on several recent occasions when he would far rather have been out enjoying himself. It also seems to make him and others quite depressed- which I guess can also be the result of taking a lot of pain killers.
All I knew before researching this topic was that some crystals accumulated in the joints somehow; that they were sharp, and that they maybe scratched the bones and thus hurt a lot! Apparently, that’s almost true, except for the fact that gout is really a form of arthritis, (meaning inflammation of joints: Greek ‘arthro’= joint and ‘itis’= inflammation), and that the crystals irritate the joint linings which makes them swell up and produce pain- it’s not the physical scratching from some great chunky quartz-type crystals, but tiny little pointy things in spaces they shouldn’t be. Here’s a pic from the internet:
The traditional spot for gout to show up is in the big toe- here’s a diagram to show where the crystals deposit.
Now I know why I saw a lot of old guys with the toe cut out of their shoes when I was a little kid growing up in a country town! The pain is felt all over the toe and really gets bad if your shoe rubs the end of it.
Unfortunately, gout can cause arthritis in most joints- my friend has it in the knees, for instance. What can add to the pain and discomfort is the occurrence of swelling and heat around the joint such that ice packs are very welcome, as well as pain killers and anti-inflammatories (like aspirin).
I wondered where the crystals came from or why they accumulated in the joint spaces, rather than in the kidneys (like other crystals I’d heard about, eg. kidney “stones”). Well the uric acid crystals actually come from processing proteins we eat- I won’t explain the whole process as you can look it up. The folklore about gout being caused by a diet that is “too rich” and “having too much to drink” is not all true.
Most gout has some inherited component- it “runs in families” and researchers are identifying some possible target genes. It is a metabolic problem where the usual pathways though and out of the body for the urate crystals are disrupted or diverted. Instead of all the extra uric acid we don’t need getting ferried out through the kidneys, too much of it hangs around in the blood permanently. With ageing, the concentration is more difficult for the body to cope with and the crystals percolate out of the blood and into the tissues, accumulating in the joint spaces where they hurt. Also, if it isn't treated properly you could end up with permanently damaged joints and need joint replacements. Alternately, if you become dependent on steroids to control the symptoms, you get all sorts of nasty side effects which wreck other aspects of your health! Bad scene- better to change your diet!
Most of the foods that contain the protein that causes uric acid build-up are also nice tasty, popular foods like: red meat, shellfish, other popular fish, roe/caviar, asparagus, cauliflower, mushrooms, peas, beans and lentils; plus there is the traditional culprit alcohol.
So if you know someone with gout, don’t make fun of them, as gout is definitely NOT a fun thing! Be sympathetic when they have an attack and either help them out with rest and ice packs or leave them alone for a day or two to get over it. By all means encourage people to seek expert care, as there is a lot more treatment available these days than when those old men cut the toes out of their shoes!