Gout is a type of arthritis that causes pain, redness and swelling in the joints. It is most common in older people, particularly men, and occurs when crystals of sodium urate accumulate in and around the joints.Sodium urate is created when there is too much uric acid in the blood. Although uric acid is a normal waste product that everybody produces, it can cause problems if too much of it is being generated or if not enough is being expelled through the kidneys.
This might happen because of a problem with the kidneys or because too many purines, found in foods like liver and sardines, as well as in spirits and beer, are being consumed. Some of the excess uric acid will crystallize as sodium urate, and if this keeps being produced, it will build up in the joints. The sharp crystals can inflame the soft tissue that lines the joint or accumulate into larger lumps that can damage the bones and cartilage.
The most common symptoms of gout are pain, swelling and redness in the joints. The joint of the big toe is most likely to be affected, but gout symptoms can appear in other joints too. When joint pain and swelling are caused by gout, they will usually appear suddenly and be very severe.
The pain will usually grow worse, peaking at about 6 to 24 hours after it began, and the symptoms could last between 3 and 10 days, before disappearing completely. However, most people who have had one attack of gout will experience more attacks in the future.
If you have experienced sudden pain in a joint, you should see your doctor. After asking about your medical history, symptoms and diet, your GP will arrange for some additional tests to be conducted if they suspect gout.
You may need to have a blood test to check the levels of uric acid and you will usually need to have fluid drawn from the affected joint so that it can be tested for sodium urate crystals. This will help to eliminate other possible causes of the inflammation and ensure that you can receive the right treatment.
Treatments for gout can help to relieve the symptoms during an attack and to reduce the likelihood of future attacks occurring. Painkillers and other medications can be used to treat an attack, along with other techniques such as using ice packs to reduce the swelling.
Other longer term efforts can also be made to help prevent further attacks. Lifestyle changes can play an important role in this, since losing any excess weight can help. Medication may also be used to help reduce the amount of uric acid in the blood in order to prevent more crystals of sodium urate forming and damaging the joints.
If the levels of uric acid can be reduced enough, the existing crystals may actually dissolve back into the bloodstream, eliminating the problem and preventing any further attacks of gout. While this is not always possible, treatment is still important in order to prevent the permanent joint damage that can be caused if the condition is left untreated.