How to Recognize the Symptoms of Gout

Gout is a type of painful arthritis that affects 8.3 million people. The disease is on the rise in the United States, and many scientists link the increase in gout cases to higher rates of obesity and poor diet. Risk of gout also increases with age, and as our aging population grows, so does the incidence of gout. Fortunately, gout is treatable. And permanent damage can be prevented if the condition is caught early. Read these questions about gout so you can recognize the symptoms in yourself or a loved one.

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What is gout?


Gout, or crystal-induced arthritis, is an arthritic condition caused by hard uric acid crystals in the synovial fluid. In an individual without gout, synovial fluid surrounds the joints, providing lubrication and cushioning. When hard crystals form in this fluid, moving the joints becomes painful wherever the crystals interfere with the synovial fluid's ability to protect the joints.


What are the first symptoms of gout?


In 75% of gout cases, the first symptom of gout is a pain in the base of the joint of one or both big toes. Often, the pain goes away, and the patient doesn't associate it with gout until a more severe flare-up occurs. Subsequent flareups may include joint pain in the toes, as well as pain in joints of the knees, ankles, wrists, or elbows. Typically, one to four joints is affected by gout. A low-grade fever is sometimes present, but not always.


What is the difference between a gout flareup and chronic gout?


Gout flare-ups are gout symptoms that occur quickly, and then clear up within a couple of weeks. Flare-ups may be mild and barely noticeable, or severe and debilitating. During a severe flare-up, use of the hands and feet may be very difficult or impossible. After the symptoms resolve, the gout patient is symptom-free until the next flare-up.

With chronic gout, the symptoms never fully resolve. Pain increases over time, and joints may begin to turn dark red or purple. The hands and feet may begin to take on a misshapen appearance as joint swelling becomes more severe.


Does gout cause permanent damage?


If left untreated, gout can cause permanent damage. Crystals in the synovial fluid don't just cause pain; they can also cause gradual deterioration of the surrounding bone, cartilage, and tissue. Once this kind of damage occurs, joints will remain painful even if the gout is treated and the crystals shrink and disappear. Kidney problems are often present with gout, too. If the underlying causes of gout are left untreated, the patient often develops kidney stones or other kinds of kidney disease.


What should I do if I think I have gout?


See your doctor as soon as you can if you have any symptoms of gout. Joint pain can be a symptom of other problems, and may or may not be gout. Your doctor will be able to run tests to find out what is causing your symptoms. Once gout is confirmed, your doctor will recommend treatment. Gout treatment typically consists of diet changes, medication to control pain, and medication to reduce the amount of uric acid in your body.


Why is this important?


Gout is becoming more common in the United States and can be a debilitating disease if left untreated. With treatment, however, the symptoms can be controlled to improve quality of life and prevent permanent joint and kidney damage.

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