Gout is a common, painful form of arthritis. It causes swollen, red, hot and stiff joints.
Gout happens when uric acid builds up in your body. Uric acid comes from the breakdown of substances called purines. Purines are in your body’s tissues and in foods, such as liver, dried beans and peas, and anchovies. Normally, uric acid dissolves in the blood. It passes through the kidneys and out of the body in urine. But sometimes uric acid can build up and form needle-like crystals. When they form in your joints, it is very painful. The crystals can also cause kidney stones.
Often, gout first attacks your big toe. It can also attack ankles, heels, knees, wrists, fingers, and elbows. At first, gout attacks usually get better in days. Eventually, attacks last longer and happen more often.
You are more likely to get gout if you
- Are a man
- Have family member with gout
- Are overweight
- Drink alcohol
- Eat too many foods rich in purines
Gout can be hard to diagnose. Your doctor may take a sample of fluid from an inflamed joint to look for crystals. You can treat gout with medicines.
Pseudogout has similar symptoms and is sometimes confused with gout. However, it is caused by calcium phosphate, not uric acid.
What is gout?
Gout is a common form of inflammatory arthritis that is very painful. It usually affects one joint at a time (often the big toe joint). There are times when symptoms get worse, known as flares, and times when there are no symptoms, known as remission. Repeated bouts of gout can lead to gouty arthritis, a worsening form of arthritis.
There is no cure for gout, but you can effectively treat and manage the condition with medication and self-management strategies.
Gout is a type of arthritis, which is a group of related disorders caused by episodes of abnormal inflammation in the joints. People with gout have high levels of a substance called urate in the blood (hyperuricemia). Gout develops when hyperuricemia leads to the formation of urate crystals in joints, triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system.
In people with gout, the first episode of inflammation (called a flare) usually affects the big toe or other joints in the foot or ankle. If urate levels remain high, flares can recur, affecting additional joints throughout the body. The time between flares varies among affected individuals; however, most people who experience multiple flares have their second one within a year of their first.
Flares usually begin at night and can last several days. It is unclear what causes a flare to stop; the body likely turns off the inflammation response after a certain period of time. During a flare, individuals can experience throbbing or burning pain, swelling, warmth, redness, and difficulty moving the affected joint. Fevers may occur, after which the skin over the affected joint can begin to peel. Without treatment, people with gout can experience frequent flares and joint pain and damage, which can limit mobility and decrease quality of life.
In about 15 percent of people with gout, urate accumulates in the kidneys and forms kidney stones. As the condition worsens, urate crystals can also be deposited under the skin or in other soft tissue, forming a nodule called a tophus (plural: tophi). These tophi often form in the hands, elbows, or feet. Tophi do not typically cause pain, but they can become inflamed, infected, or ooze fluid. Depending on their location, tophi can interfere with movements such as walking or gripping objects.
Many people with gout also have other health conditions. Most affected individuals have high blood pressure (hypertension), chronic kidney disease, or obesity. Some also have diabetes, heart disease, or a history of stroke. It is unclear whether gout is the cause of a person’s increased risk for these conditions, or whether the conditions cause the development of gout, or whether both of these situations occur to influence disease.
What are the signs and symptoms of gout?
Gout flares start suddenly and can last days or weeks. These flares are followed by long periods of remission—weeks, months, or years—without symptoms before another flare begins. Gout usually occurs in only one joint at a time. It is often found in the big toe. Along with the big toe, joints that are commonly affected are the lesser toe joints, the ankle, and the knee.
Symptoms in the affected joint(s) may include:
- Pain, usually intense
What Causes Gout?
Gout is caused by a condition known as hyperuricemia, where there is too much uric acid in the body. The body makes uric acid when it breaks down purines, which are found in your body and the foods you eat. When there is too much uric acid in the body, uric acid crystals (monosodium urate) can build up in joints, fluids, and tissues within the body. Hyperuricemia does not always cause gout, and hyperuricemia without gout symptoms does not need to be treated.
Gout is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some of the factors that contribute to this condition have been confirmed by research, while others are unknown. The main risk factor for developing gout is hyperuricemia. About one-quarter of individuals with hyperuricemia go on to develop gout. It is unclear why others with hyperuricemia do not get gout.
Large studies have identified dozens of genes that play a role in the development of gout. Multiple genetic changes, each with a small effect, likely combine to increase the risk of developing this disorder. Most of the known genes play a role in transporting urate, which is a byproduct of normal biochemical processes. Many gout-associated genes play a role in releasing urate into the urine if levels are too high or reabsorbing it back into the bloodstream if more is needed in the body. Other associated genes are involved in transporting or breaking down sugars or transporting other small molecules. The roles of some associated genes are unclear. Of all the genes that have been studied, two genes, SLC2A9 and ABCG2, seem to have the greatest influence on urate levels.
The SLC2A9 gene provides instructions for making a protein that is found primarily in the kidneys where it plays a role in managing the body’s levels of urate. This protein helps reabsorb urate into the bloodstream or release it into the urine. Genetic changes in the SLC2A9 gene that can result in hyperuricemia increase the reabsorption of urate into the bloodstream and decrease its release into the urine.
The ABCG2 gene provides instructions for making a protein that helps release urate into the gut so that it can be removed from the body. Genetic changes in the ABCG2 gene that can result in hyperuricemia reduce the protein’s ability to release urate into the gut.
Nongenetic factors are also believed to play a role in gout, primarily by triggering flares. These factors also often increase urate levels in the body. Consuming foods and beverages that are high in molecules called purines, such as red meat, seafood, dried beans, alcohol, and sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to increased urate. When purines are broken down, urate is made, which can cause hyperuricemia and lead to gout in some individuals. The risk for gout also increases with age. In particular, women have an increased risk after menopause. Following menopause, production of the hormone estrogen, which plays a role in removing urate from the body, declines so older women have a rise in urate levels and an increased risk of developing gout.
What increases your chances for gout?
The following make it more likely that you will develop hyperuricemia, which causes gout:
- Being male
- Being obese
- Having certain health conditions, including:
- Using certain medications, such as diuretics (water pills).
- Drinking alcohol. The risk of gout is greater as alcohol intake goes up.
- Eating or drinking food and drinks high in fructose (a type of sugar).
- Having a diet high in purines, which the body breaks down into uric acid. Purine-rich foods include red meat, organ meat, and some kinds of seafood, such as anchovies, sardines, mussels, scallops, trout, and tuna.
How is gout diagnosed?
A medical doctor diagnoses gout by assessing your symptoms and the results of your physical examination, X-rays, and lab tests. Gout can only be diagnosed during a flare when a joint is hot, swollen, and painful and when a lab test finds uric acid crystals in the affected joint.
Gout is a common condition, but it occurs more frequently in some populations than others. For example, gout occurs in 1 percent of people with Asian ancestry, 3 to 4 percent of people with European ancestry, and 6 to 8 percent of Indigenous (native) Taiwanese peoples and Māori from New Zealand.
Who should diagnose and treat gout?
The disease should be diagnosed and treated by a doctor or a team of doctors who specialize in care of gout patients. This is important because the signs and symptoms of gout are not specific and can look like signs and symptoms of other inflammatory diseases. Doctors who specialize in gout and other forms of arthritis are called rheumatologists. To find a provider near you, visit the database of rheumatologistsexternal icon on the American College of Rheumatology website. Once a rheumatologist has diagnosed and effectively treated your gout, a primary care provider can usually track your condition and help you manage your gout.
How is gout treated?
Gout can be effectively treated and managed with medical treatment and self-management strategies. Your health care provider may recommend a medical treatment plan to
- Manage the pain of a flare. Treatment for flares consists of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, steroids, and the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine.
- Prevent future flares. Making changes to your diet and lifestyle, such as losing weight, limiting alcohol, eating less purine-rich food (like red meat or organ meat), may help prevent future attacks. Changing or stopping medications associated with hyperuricemia (like diuretics) may also help.
- Prevent tophi and kidney stones from forming as a result of chronic high levels of uric acid. Tophi are hard, uric acid deposits under the skin. For people with frequent acute flares or chronic gout, doctors may recommend preventive therapy to lower uric acid levels in the blood using drugs like allopurinol, febuxostat, and pegloticase.
In addition to medical treatment, you can manage your gout with self-management strategies. Self-management is what you do day to day to manage your condition and stay healthy, like making healthy lifestyle choices. The self-management strategies described below are proven to reduce pain and disability, so you can pursue the activities important to you.
How can I manage my gout and improve my quality of life?
Gout affects many aspects of daily living, including work and leisure activities. Fortunately, there are many low-cost self-management strategies that are proven to improve the quality of life of people with gout.
For gout in particular:
- Eat a healthy diet. Avoid foods that may trigger a gout flare, including foods high in purines (like a diet rich in red meat, organ meat, and seafood), and limit alcohol intake (particularly beer and hard liquor).
- Learn self-management skills. Join a self-management education class, which helps people with arthritis and other chronic conditions—including gout—understand how arthritis affects their lives and increase their confidence in controlling their symptoms and living well. Learn more about the CDC-recommended self-management education programs.
- Get physically active. Experts recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes per week of at least moderate physical activity. Every minute of activity counts, and any activity is better than none. Moderate, low impact activities recommended include walking, swimming, or biking. Regular physical activity can also reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Learn more about physical activity for arthritis.
- Go to effective physical activity programs. For people who worry that physical activity may make arthritis worse or are unsure how to exercise safely, participation in physical activity programs can help reduce pain and disability related to arthritis and improve mood and the ability to move. Classes take place at local Ys, parks, and community centers. These classes can help people with arthritis feel better. Learn more about CDC-recommended physical activity programs.
- Talk to your doctor. You can play an active role in controlling your arthritis by attending regular appointments with your health care provider and following your recommended treatment plan. This is especially important if you also have other chronic conditions, like diabetes or heart disease.
- Lose weight. For people who are overweight or obese, losing weight reduces pressure on joints, particularly weight bearing joints like the hips and knees. Reaching or maintaining a healthy weight can relieve pain, improve function, and slow the progression of arthritis.
- Protect your joints. Joint injuries can cause or worsen arthritis. Choose activities that are easy on the joints like walking, bicycling, and swimming. These low-impact activities have a low risk of injury and do not twist or put too much stress on the joints. Learn more about how to exercise safely with arthritis.