Gout is a disease characterized by an abnormal metabolism of uric acid, resulting in an excess of uric acid in the tissues and blood. People with gout either produce too much uric acid, or more commonly, their bodies have a problem in removing it. There are a number of possible consequences of this buildup of uric acid in the body, including acute and chronic goutyarthritis, kidney stones, and local deposits of uric acid in the skin and other tissues. Gout may occur alone (primary gout) or may be associated with other medical conditions or medications (secondary gout).
The prevalence of gout appears to be increasing. It is currently estimated to be affecting over 6 million peoples.
Gouty arthritis is a common cause of a sudden onset of a painful, hot, red, swollen joint, particularly in the foot at the big toe. Gouty arthritis is reportedly the most common cause of inflammatory arthritis in men over the age of 40. It is definitively diagnosed by detecting uric acid (monosodium urate) crystals in an aspirated sample of the joint fluid. These uric acid crystals can accumulate in the joint and tissues around the joint over years, intermittently triggering repeated bouts of acute inflammation. Repeated "attacks" of gouty arthritis, or "flares," can damage the joint and lead to chronic arthritis. Fortunately, while gout is a progressive disease, there are effective medications to treat gout.
The small joint at the base of the big toe is the most common site of an acute gout attack of arthritis. An acute attack of gouty arthritis at the base of the big toe is medically referred to as podagra. Other joints that are commonly affected include the ankles, knees, wrists, fingers, and elbows. Acute gout attacks are characterized by a rapid onset of pain in the affected joint followed by warmth, swelling, reddish discoloration, and marked tenderness. Tenderness can be intense so that even a blanket touching the skin over the affected joint can be unbearable. Patients can develop fever with the acute gout attacks. These painful attacks usually subside in hours to days, with or without medication. In rare instances, an attack can last for weeks. Most patients with gout will experience repeated attacks of arthritis over the years.
Uric acid crystals can deposit in tiny fluid-filled sacs (bursae) around the joints. These urate crystals can incite inflammation in the bursae, leading to pain and swelling around the joints (a condition called bursitis). In rare instances, gout leads to a more chronic type of joint inflammation that mimics rheumatoid arthritis.
In chronic (tophaceous) gout, nodular masses of uric acid crystals (tophi) deposit in different soft-tissue areas of the body. Even though they are most commonly found as hard nodules around the fingers, at the tips of the elbows, in the ears, and around the big toe, tophi nodules can appear anywhere in the body. They have been reported in unexpected areas such as in the vocal cords or (rarely) even around the spinal cord. When tophi appear in the tissues, the gout condition is felt to represent a substantial overload of uric acid within the body.
Gout is suspected when a patient reports a history of attacks of painful arthritis, particularly at the base of the toes. Ankles and knees are the next most commonly involved joints in gout. Gout usually attacks one joint at a time, while other arthritis conditions, such as systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, usually attack multiple joints simultaneously.
The most reliable test for gout is finding uric acid crystals in a sample of the joint fluid obtained by joint aspiritation(arthrocentesis). Arthrocentesis is a common office procedure performed under local anesthesia. Using sterile technique, fluid is withdrawn (aspirated) from the inflamed joint using a syringe and needle. The joint fluid is then analyzed for uric acid crystals and for infection. Shiny, needle-like uric acid crystals are best viewed with a special polarizing microscope. The diagnosis of gout can also be made by finding these urate crystals from material aspirated from tophi nodules and bursitis fluid. Although many doctors can do the procedure, rheumatologists are specialists who are particularly trained in this evaluation.
Sometimes, patients with a classic history and symptoms of gout can be successfully treated and presumed to have gout without undergoing arthrocentesis. However, establishing a firm diagnosis is still preferable since other conditions can mimic gout. These include another crystal-induced arthritis called pseduogout, psoriatic arthritis rheumatoid arthritis, and even infection in the joint.
X-rays can sometimes be helpful and may show tophi-crystal deposits and bone damage as a result of repeated bouts of inflammation. X-rays can also be helpful for monitoring the effects of chronic gout on the joints.
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