Gout Explained: Understanding the Basics of this Painful Condition

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

Have you been having sudden, intense joint pain? If you have pain (particularly in your big toe) that seems to come out of nowhere, you may have a condition called gout. This common, yet often underdiagnosed condition, can have a major impact on your quality of life. To properly manage gout, it is essential to understand the condition and how it affects your body. 

To help you manage and prevent gout, let’s take a look at everything that you need to know about this painful condition. Here is your in-depth guide to the causes, symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, and prevention measures for gout.

What Is Gout?

Gout is a condition that happens when there is too much uric acid in your blood and it forms crystals around your joints. These crystals trigger acute inflammation, swelling, and extreme pain. Gout frequently affects the big toe joint, but can also cause issues in your ankles, knees, wrists, and fingers.

The pain of gout often comes on suddenly and is most commonly felt at night. The excruciating pain, redness, and swelling of a gout flare-up can make standing or even having a sheet over the affected joint agonising.

While high uric acid itself may not cause issues, the sharp urate crystals that form can cause significant joint damage. Without treatment, gout attacks recur and increase in frequency over time. Recurrent gout episodes can permanently harm joints and surrounding tissues. Formations called tophi (solid uric acid deposits under the skin) may also develop.

What Causes Gout?

Gout develops primarily due to high uric acid levels in the blood, known as hyperuricemia. A number of factors can promote hyperuricemia and raise gout risk, such as:

  • A diet high in purines (like red meat, organ meats, seafood, and high-fructose drinks) boosts uric acid production.
  • Alcohol intake, especially beer, contains purines and impairs uric acid excretion by the kidneys.
  • Dehydration reduces your body’s natural ability to remove uric acid.
  • Obesity causes increased uric acid production and decreased excretion.
  • Genetic predisposition to naturally higher uric acid levels.
  • Medical conditions including hypertension, kidney disease, and diabetes.
  • Certain medications such as diuretics and low-dose aspirin lower uric acid excretion.

While hyperuricemia is necessary for gout, it alone doesn’t always cause gout. Often a combination of factors is required to cause gout flares. Managing your diet, lifestyle, and medical issues can help control uric acid levels. This helps prevent gout attacks and associated joint damage.

Who Is at High Risk for Gout?

Several factors raise the likelihood of developing gout:

  • Men, especially as they get older, have a higher gout risk than women. After menopause, women also have an increased risk.
  • Gout more commonly occurs in middle-aged and elderly adults.
  • Having close relatives with gout indicates a genetic predisposition to high uric acid.
  • Excess weight can lead to more uric acid production and less excretion, promoting gout.
  • Anyone with a diet high in purines like red meat, organic meats, seafood, and high-fructose drinks.
  • People who drink alcohol regularly.
  • Not drinking enough water reduces your kidney’s ability to remove uric acid.
  • Certain medications like diuretics and low-dose aspirin disrupt uric acid excretion.
  • Medical conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, and diabetes increase your risk.
  • Those with a previous joint injury or surgery in a joint.
  • Anyone who loses weight or fasts, as this can spike uric acid levels.

Having multiple risk factors and other genetic/environmental influences can promote gout development. Those at risk should be aware and take measures to lower their risk through lifestyle changes and medical guidance.

What Health Conditions Can Cause Gout?

On top of being aware of your lifestyle factors and medical background, it is important to talk to your doctor about your risk for gout if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Prediabetes
  • Dehydration
  • Joint injuries
  • Infections
  • Congestive heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney disease

Is Gout Common?

Gout is a common condition, especially in certain parts of the world. Statically, It has been shown to be more common in men than in women. For both genders, your risk of developing gout increases as you get old. While gout can occur at any age, it is most commonly seen in middle-aged and older people.

The rates of gout vary by location, with certain areas having much higher rates of gout than other places. Generally speaking, gout is more common in Western countries. Because it is closely linked with dietary and lifestyle factors, it is more often seen in areas with high consumption of alcohol and meat (especially red meat and organ meat) and high in purines (found in red meat, organ meats, and seafood).

Keep in mind that while gout is common, it is not inevitable. Even if you are high risk or have already developed the condition, it can often be successfully managed with lifestyle changes and medication. If you think that you have gout or know that you are at risk, you should consult a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis and management advice.

What Are Common Gout Symptoms?

Gout strikes suddenly with intense pain, swelling, warmth, redness, and tenderness in the joints, often the big toe. Attacks typically affect one joint and occur at night. Key gout symptoms include:

  • Severe joint pain that feels like fire, with extreme tenderness. The affected joint is acutely painful.
  • Visible swelling and inflammation, taking on a red, inflamed appearance.
  • Warmth around the joint due to the inflammatory response.
  • Decreased range of motion and stiffness in the joint, making it difficult to move or bend.
  • Low-grade fever in some cases during an acute attack.

Gout flares can persist for days to weeks before resolving spontaneously. Without treatment, recurrent attacks are common, potentially progressing to chronic gout. While the big toe is most typical, gout can impact your ankles, knees, wrists, fingers, and occasionally several joints at once.

If you think that you may be dealing with gout, you need to seek medical evaluation for proper diagnosis and treatment options to manage symptoms and prevent future painful flares. Controlling gout is key to averting joint damage over time.

Is Gout Painful?

Yes, gout causes severe pain, especially in the big toe joint initially. This intense pain is accompanied by joint swelling, warmth, and redness.

Gout pain comes from your body’s inflammatory response to uric acid crystals deposited in the joints. The immune system releases cytokines, chemicals that mediate inflammation and pain.

During acute gout flares, the pain can be excruciating. It may subside between attacks but often persists at a lower intensity.

Is Gout Hereditary?

Gout has a hereditary component. Research has identified various genes like SLC2A9 and ABCG2 that increase gout risk. These genes influence how much uric acid the body retains and excretes.

Given this genetic influence, gout tends to run in families. Having a close relative with gout raises your risk of developing it.

However, genes alone don’t dictate gout. Environmental factors, particularly diet, serve as the trigger for gout attacks in those with a genetic predisposition. So while heritage plays a role, lifestyle and other factors activate the condition.

What Are Some Effective Gout Treatment Options?

Treating gout involves a multipronged approach of medications, lifestyle modifications, and ongoing medical care to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, lower uric acid, and prevent attacks and joint damage. Key components include:

  • Medications: Anti-inflammatories like NSAIDs or colchicine to reduce acute pain and swelling. Corticosteroids are an option if these drugs are ineffective. Urate-lowering medicines such as allopurinol, febuxostat, and probenecid reduce uric acid buildup long-term.
  • Lifestyle changes: Dietary adjustments to limit purine-rich foods, stay hydrated, maintain a healthy weight, restrict alcohol, and exercise regularly. You can check out these 10 daily workouts to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • Preventative therapy: Taking colchicine or low-dose NSAIDs regularly during the initial months of urate-lowering treatment to prevent recurrent attacks.
  • Medical care: Working closely with a rheumatologist or gout specialist for customised treatment, monitoring of uric acid levels, and modification of the treatment plan is important.
  • Underlying condition management: Controlling related health issues like hypertension and diabetes to reduce gout risk.

Gout treatment is often lifelong to prevent future painful flares and joint damage. While medication provides relief, lifestyle adjustments are key. Ongoing medical supervision ensures proper management through uric acid level checks and tailored treatment adjustments. The combined approach aims to minimise gout attacks and progression.

What Are Some Home Treatments for Gout?

Home treatments for gout can be helpful in managing symptoms and reducing the risk of gout attacks. These treatments include:

●        Rest: During a gout attack, rest the affected joint to reduce pain and inflammation.

●        Cold Compress: Apply a cold compress to the affected joint for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day, to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.

●        Elevate the Joint: Prop up the affected joint on pillows or cushions to reduce swelling.

●        Hydration: Stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water to help flush excess uric acid from the body.

●        Dietary Modifications

○        Avoid foods high in purines, such as red meat, organ meats, and seafood.

○        Limit alcohol consumption, especially beer and spirits.

○        Consider a low-purine diet, which focuses on consuming fewer purine-rich foods.

●        Weight Management: Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight to reduce the risk of gout attacks.

●        Low-Fat Dairy: Consume low-fat dairy products to help lower the risk of gout attacks and excrete uric acid from the body.

●        Tart Cherry Supplements: Some people find relief from gout symptoms by taking tart cherry supplements, which may reduce inflammation and lower uric acid levels.

●        Ginger and Turmeric: Add ginger and turmeric to your diet or take them as supplements to reduce inflammation.

●        Stay Active: Do regular low-impact exercises for weight management and overall health (but avoid vigorous exercise during a gout attack).

●        Compression: Some people find relief by wearing compression bandages on the affected joint to reduce swelling.

●        Stress Reduction: Manage stress with techniques such as yoga or pilates, meditation, and deep breathing exercises, as stress can trigger gout attacks in some individuals.

Remember that these home treatments complement medical treatment but should not replace it. Consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan, which often includes medication to lower uric acid levels and prevent recurrent gout attacks.

What Happens If Gout Isn’t Treated?

If gout is left untreated or poorly managed, it can lead to several complications and health problems over time. Some of the potential consequences of untreated or inadequately treated gout include:

  • Recurrent Gout Attacks: Without appropriate management, gout attacks tend to recur, and they may become more frequent and severe over time.
  • Chronic Gout: Gout can become a chronic condition with ongoing pain, inflammation, and joint damage if not effectively treated. Chronic gout is associated with tophi formation.
  • Tophi Formation: Tophi are deposits of urate crystals that accumulate in and around joints, under the skin, and in other tissues. These nodules can be painful, and disfiguring, and cause joint damage. Tophi often requires more aggressive treatment, including surgery in some cases.
  • Joint Damage: Prolonged inflammation and urate crystal deposition can damage the affected joints, leading to reduced mobility and deformities.
  • Kidney Stones: Urate crystals can form in your kidneys. This can cause the development of kidney stones which typically cause severe pain and may require medical care.
  • Kidney Damage: Untreated gout can lead to kidney damage and impaired kidney function, especially if you are dealing with chronic hyperuricemia.
  • Cardiovascular Disease: High uric acid levels are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. This means being at higher risk for hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
  • Hypertension: Gout and hypertension are often connected. Gout can lead to high blood pressure while hypertension can make your gout symptoms worse.
  • Obesity: Gout is more common in people who are overweight or obese. On top of that, gout can contribute to weight gain, which causes a cycle of increasingly bad symptoms.
  • Diabetes: Gout and diabetes are often linked and having one condition can increase your risk of developing the other. If you don’t manage gout, your diabetes symptoms are likely to worsen.
  • Decreased Quality of Life: The chronic pain and physical limitations caused by untreated gout can seriously affect your quality of life. As the pain gets worse, everyday life can become a struggle. 

If you suspect that you may have gout, It’s essential to talk with a healthcare professional. With proper management, gout can be controlled and the risk of complications can be minimised. In most cases, lifestyle changes can make a major impact. Medication and regular monitoring is usually enough even for more severe cases.

Understanding Gout Surgery

Orthopaedic surgery is not typically required to treat gout, but over time, this condition can lead to joint damage, tendon tears, and skin infections over the affected joints.

The development of solid deposits known as tophi is common on and around the joints, including the ears, and these nodules can cause pain and swelling while potentially resulting in lasting joint damage.

In the case that surgical intervention is necessary, there are three options available to address tophi. These options include tophi removal surgery, joint fusion surgery, and joint replacement surgery. The best choice for you depends on the severity of your condition, the location of the tophi, and your personal preferences.

How to Prevent Gout

To minimise your risk of gout flare-ups and manage this condition, it is important to focus on preventive measures. These are key strategies that will not only prevent flare-ups, but they can help you avoid getting gout in the first place. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Avoid sugary drinks and fruit juice.
  • Control the consumption of purine-rich foods, such as shellfish, lamb, beef, pork, and organ meats.
  • Embrace a low-fat, dairy-free diet rich in vegetables.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Abstain from smoking.
  • Engage in regular exercise such as running and core exercises.
  • Stay well-hydrated.

On top of lifestyle factors, certain medications used to treat other conditions can elevate the uric acid levels in your blood. You should talk with your healthcare provider if you are taking any of these drugs:

  • Diuretics (water pills)
  • Aspirin
  • Blood pressure-lowering medications, including beta blockers and angiotensin II receptor blockers

If you have underlying medical conditions or are on medications that heighten your gout risk, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor for personalised advice on minimising the likelihood of gout attacks.

Gout Treatment in Singapore

If you think that you may have gout, it is time to talk to a medical professional. Treating gout at home and guessing your way through a diagnosis is dangerous and can lead to long-term effects. Our expert team is here and ready to help. Here is how to get in touch:

Email: hello@quantumortho.com.sg

Phone: +65 6235 8781

WhatsApp: +65 8028 4572

Experiencing musculoskeletal pain?

If you're struggling with musculoskeletal issues, it's time to consult with an orthopaedic specialist and sports injury doctor. Contact us at the following:

Or click the following button to schedule an appointment at our orthopaedic clinic. Our experts will help you get the treatment and care you need when it comes to your musculoskeletal health, such as:

Don't let discomfort or injuries hold you back from the active lifestyle you deserve. Take the first step toward pain relief today!

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

Recent Posts

Plantar Fasciitis

Can Plantar Fasciitis Be The Cause Of Your Heel and Foot Pain?

Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common conditions of pain in the heel and bottom of the foot. This condition is most common among runners, athletes, overweight individuals, and…

Read More
archilles tendon injury

What To Expect If You Have An Achilles Tendon Injury

An Achilles tendon injury is one of the common causes of pain around the heel area, the back of the ankle, and the lower calf region of the leg. Achilles…

Read More
meniscus tear surgery

Meniscus Tear Surgery and Prevention

The meniscus is a crucial piece of cartilage in the knee that acts as a shock absorber between your thigh bone and shinbone. A tear in this cartilage is a…

Read More
acl tear

How To Know If You Have An ACL Tear

If you play some sports like football, basketball, tennis, or volleyball, chances are that you or someone you know has experienced an ACL injury, in this guide, we share how…

Read More
acl tear

Will An ACL Tear Heal on Its Own?

Full ACL tears are not self-healing. These tears almost always require surgical intervention, usually through the minimally invasive procedure called arthroscopy. Surgery may be necessary for even partial ACL tears…

Read More