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Gout is a painful and potentially disabling form of arthritis that has been around since ancient times. It is sometimes referred to as the “disease of kings,” because people long have incorrectly linked it to the kind of overindulgence in food and wine only the rich and powerful could afford. In fact, gout can affect anyone, and its risk factors vary.
The first symptoms usually are intense episodes of painful swelling in single joints, most often in the feet, especially the big toe. The swollen site may be red and warm. Fifty percent of first episodes occur in the big toe, but any joint can be involved. Fortunately, it is possible to treat gout and reduce its very painful attacks by avoiding food and medication triggers and by taking medicines that can help. However, diagnosing gout can be hard, and treatment plans often must be tailored for each person.
Gout occurs when excess uric acid (a normal waste product) collects in the body, and needle‐like urate crystals deposit in the joints. This may happen because either uric acid production increases or, more often, the kidneys cannot remove uric acid from the body well enough. Certain foods and drugs may raise uric acid levels and lead to gout attacks. These include:
Over time, increased uric acid levels in the blood may lead to deposits of urate crystals in and around the joints. These crystals can attract white blood cells, leading to severe, painful gout attacks and chronic arthritis. Uric acid also can deposit in the urinary tract, causing kidney stones.
Gout affects more than three million Americans. This condition and its complications occur more often in men, women after menopause, and people with kidney disease. Gout is strongly linked to obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and triglycerides) and diabetes. Because of genetic factors, gout tends to run in some families. Gout rarely affects children.
Some other kinds of arthritis can mimic gout, so proper diagnosis (detection) is key. Health care providers suspect gout when a patient has joint swelling and intense pain in one or two joints at first, followed by pain‐free times between attacks. Early gout attacks often start at night.
Diagnosis depends on finding the distinguishing crystals. The physician may use a needle to extract fluid from an affected joint and will study that fluid under a microscope to find whether urate crystals are present. Crystals also can be found in deposits (called tophi) that can appear under the skin. These tophi occur in advanced gout.
Uric acid levels in the blood are important to measure but can sometimes be misleading, especially if measured at the time of an acute attack. Levels may be normal for a short time or even low during attacks. Even people who do not have gout can have increased uric acid levels.
X-rays may show joint damage in gout of long duration. Ultrasound and dual energy computed tomography (commonly called dual energy CT) can show early features of gouty joint involvement. These imaging techniques also can help suggest the diagnosis.
Treatment of acute attacks
One treatment for active gout flares is colchicine. This medicine can be effective if given early in the attack. However, colchicine can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other side effects. Side effects may be less frequent with low doses. Patients with kidney or liver disease, or who take drugs that interact (interfere) with colchicine, must take lower doses or use other medicines. Colchicine also has an important role in preventing gout attacks (see below).
Nonsteroidal anti‐inflammatory drugs– commonly called NSAIDs – are aspirin‐like medications that can decrease inflammation and pain in joints and other tissues. NSAIDs, such as indomethacin (Indocin) and naproxen (Naprosyn), have become the treatment choice for most acute attacks of gout. There is no proof that any one NSAID is better than others. High doses of short‐acting NSAIDs give the fastest relief of symptoms. These medicines may cause stomach upset, ulcers or diarrhea, but they are well tolerated by most people when used for the short term. Some people cannot take NSAIDs because of health conditions such as ulcer disease or impaired kidney function or the use of blood thinners. The fact sheet on NSAIDs lists the types of patients who cannot take NSAIDs.
In patients with chronic undertreated gout crystals can be found in uric acid deposits (called tophi) that can damage joints & can appear under the skin.
Corticosteroids such as prednisone and triamcinolone are useful options for patients who cannot take NSAIDs. Given orally (by mouth) or by injection (shot) into the muscle, these medicines can be very effective in treating gout attacks. If only one or two joints are involved, your doctor can inject a corticosteroid directly into your joint.
Health care providers may prescribe anakinra (Kineret), an “interleukin 1 beta antagonist,” for very severe attacks of gout. Though this rheumatoid arthritis drug is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for gout treatment, it can quickly relieve gout symptoms for some patients. Some home remedies may help ease gout pain. Rest the affected joint and apply ice packs or cold compresses (cloths soaked in ice water and wrung out) to that spot.
Treatment to remove excess uric acid
Patients who have repeated gout flares, abnormally high levels of blood uric acid, or tophi or kidney stones should strongly consider medicines to lower blood uric acid levels. These medications do not help the painful flares of acute gout, so most patients should start taking them after acute attacks subside. The drug most often used to return blood levels of uric acid to normal is allopurinol (Lopurin, Zyloprim). It blocks production of uric acid. Another option, febuxostat (Uloric), also acts by blocking uric acid production.
Probenecid (Benemid) helps the kidneys remove uric acid. Only patients with good kidney function who do not overproduce uric acid should take probenecid.
Pegloticase (Krystexxa) is given by injection and breaks down uric acid. This drug is for patients who do not respond to other treatments or cannot tolerate them. New drugs to lower uric acid levels and to treat gout inflammation are under development.
Gout flares often can occur when you first start to use medications that lower blood uric acid levels. Patients can help prevent flares when starting these medications by also using low‐dose colchicine or NSAIDs. Often, doctors advise patients to keep taking colchicine in a low, preventive dose together with the uric acid-lowering medicine for at least six months.
If you are taking a uric acid-lowering drug, your doctor should slowly raise the dose and keep checking your blood uric acid levels. Once your uric acid levels drop below 6 mg/dL (normal), crystals tend to dissolve and new deposits of crystals can be prevented. You probably will have to stay on this medicine long term to prevent gout attacks.
What works well for one person may not work as well for another. Therefore, decisions about when to start treatment and what drugs to use should be tailored for each patient. Treatment choices depend on kidney function, other health problems, personal preferences and other factors.
What you eat can increase uric acid levels. Limit the amount of high-fructose drinks, such as non-diet soda. Also, do not drink alcohol, especially beer. Restrict eating foods that are rich in purines, compounds that break down into uric acid. These compounds are high in meat and certain types of seafood. New research has found purines in vegetables appear to be safe. Low‐fat dairy products may help lower uric acid levels.
In almost all cases, it is possible to successfully treat gout and bring a gradual end to attacks. Treatment also can decrease the number and size of tophi (deposits of uric acid crystals).
Gout often is associated with high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease, or the use of medications that increase uric acid levels. Therefore, health care providers should test for these related health problems. Researchers are studying whether lowering blood uric acid levels can help heart disease and kidney disease.
Gout affects quality of life by both the intermittent attacks and the potential for chronic (lasting) arthritis. Compliance with your treatment plan is critical. Lifestyle changes may make it easier to manage this lifelong disease. Suggestions include gradual weight loss, avoidance of alcohol and reduced consumption of fructose‐containing drinks and foods high in purines.
Treatment of gout can be difficult because of coexisting illnesses and other medications. As experts in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatologists examine patients to learn whether gout is the cause of their arthritis and to educate them about the role and proper use of medications and other treatments for gout. They also act as a resource to primary care doctors.
Written by H. Ralph Schumacher, MD, and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Communications and Marketing Committee. This information is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of a medical or health condition.
© April 2015 American College of Rheumatology