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Arthritis Overview
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Gout
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What is Gout?

Gout is one of the most painful rheumatic diseases. It results from deposits of needle-like crystals of uric acid in connective tissue, in the joint space between two bones, or in both.

These deposits lead to inflammatory arthritis, which causes swelling, redness, heat, pain, and stiffness in the joints. The term arthritis refers to more than 100 different rheumatic diseases that affect the joints, muscles, and bones, as well as other tissues and structures. Gout accounts for approximately 5 percent of all cases of arthritis.

Pseudogout is sometimes confused with gout because it produces similar symptoms of inflammation. However, in this condition, also called chondrocalcinosis, deposits are made up of calcium phosphate crystals, not uric acid. Therefore, pseudogout is treated somewhat differently and is not reviewed in this booklet.

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 the body increases its 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 is not dangerous. However, if excess uric acid crystals form as a result of hyperuricemia, gout can develop. The excess crystals build up in the joint spaces, causing inflammation. Deposits of uric acid, called tophi (singular: tophus), can appear as lumps under the skin around the joints and at the rim of the ear. In addition, uric acid crystals can collect in the kidneys and cause kidney stones.

For many people, gout initially affects the joints in the big toe. Sometime during the course of the disease, gout will affect the big toe in about 75 percent of patients. It also can affect the instep, ankles, heels, knees, wrists, fingers, and elbows. The disease can progress through four stages:

  1. Asymptomatic (without symptoms) hyperuricemia : In this stage, a person has elevated levels of uric acid in the blood but no other symptoms. A person in this stage does not usually require treatment.
  2. Acute gout, or acute gouty arthritis : In this stage, hyperuricemia has caused the deposit of uric acid crystals 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 attack commonly occurs 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. Over time, however, attacks can last longer and occur more frequently.
  3. Interval or intercritical gout : This is the period between acute attacks. In this stage, a person does not have any symptoms and has normal joint function.
  4. Chronic tophaceous gout : This is the most disabling stage of gout and usually develops over a long period, such as 10 years. In this stage, the disease has 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.

 

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