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Gout is a form of acute arthritis that causes severe pain and swelling in the joints. It most commonly affects the big toe, but may also affect the heel, ankle, hand, wrist, or elbow. It affects the spine often enough to be a factor in lower back pain. Gout is often a recurring condition. An attack usually comes on suddenly and goes away after 5–10 days. Gout occurs when there are high levels of uric acid circulating in the blood, and the acid crystallizes and settles in the body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), gout accounts for about 5% of all cases of arthritis reported in the United States.
Gout appears to be on the increase in the American population. According to a study published in November 2002, there was a twofold increase in the incidence of gout over the 20 years between 1977 and 1997. It is not yet known whether this increase is the result of improved diagnosis or whether it is associated with risk factors that have not yet been identified.
Uric acid is formed in the bloodstream when the body breaks down waste products, mainly those containing purines. Purines can be produced naturally by the body, and they can be ingested from such high-purine foods as meat. Normally, the kidneys filter uric acid particles out of the blood and excrete it into the urine. If the body produces too much uric acid or the kidneys aren't able to filter enough of it out, there is a buildup of uric acid in the bloodstream. This condition is known as hyperuricemia.
Uric acid does not tend to remain dissolved in the bloodstream. Over the course of years, or even decades, hyperuricemia may cause deposits of crystallized uric acid throughout the body. Joints, tendons, ear tips, and kidneys are favored sites. When the immune system becomes alerted to the urate crystals, it mounts an inflammatory response that includes the pain, redness, swelling, and damage to joint tissue that are the hallmarks of an acute gout attack.
The body's uric acid production tends to increase in males during puberty. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that nine out of ten of those suffering from gout are men. Since it can take up to 20 years of hyperuricemia to have gout symptoms, men don't commonly develop gout until reaching their late 30s or early 40s. If a woman does develop gout, typically, it will be later in her life. According to some medical experts, this is because estrogen protects against hyperuricemia. It is not
Hyperuricemia does not necessarily lead to gout. The tendency to accumulate urate crystals may be due to genetic factors, excess weight, or overindulgence in the wrong kinds of food. In addition, regular use of alcohol to excess, the use of diuretics, and the existence of high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood can increase the risk of developing the disease. In some cases, an underlying disease such as lymphoma, leukemia, or hemolytic anemia may also lead to gout.
Author Info: Patience Paradox, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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