Causes & symptoms
An acute episode of gout often starts without warning. The needle-like urate crystals may be present in the joints for a long time without causing symptoms. Then, there may be a triggering event such as a stubbed toe, an infection, surgery, stress, fatigue, or even a heavy drinking binge. Patients in intensive care units (ICUs) may have an acute flare-up of gout. In addition, it is now known that chronic occupational exposure to lead leads to decreased excretion of urates and an increased risk of developing gout.
In many cases, the gout attack begins in the middle of the night. There is intense pain, which usually involves only one joint. Often it is the first joint of the big toe. The inflamed skin over the joint is warm, shiny, and red or purplish, and the pain is often so excruciating that the sufferer cannot tolerate the pressure of bedcovers. The inflammation may be accompanied by a fever.
Acute symptoms of gout usually resolve in about a week, and then disappear altogether for months or years at a time. Eventually, however, the attacks may occur more frequently, last longer, and do more damage. The urate crystals may eventually settle into hard lumps under the skin around the joints, leading to joint deformity and decreased range of motion. These hard lumps, called tophi, may also develop in the kidneys and other internal organs, under the skin of the ears, or at the elbow. People with gout also face a heightened risk of kidney disease, and almost 20% of people with gout develop kidney stones. As of 2002, however, the relationship between gout and kidney stone formation is still not completely understood.
Doctors can diagnose gout based on a physical examination and the patient's description of symptoms. In order to detect hyperuricemia, doctors can administer a blood test to measure serum urate levels. However, high urate levels merely point to the possibility of gout. Many people with hyperuricemia don't have urate crystal deposits. Also, it has been shown that up to 30% of gout
sufferers have normal serum urate levels, even at the time of an acute gout attack. The most definitive way to diagnose gout is to take a sample of fluid from an affected joint and test it for the presence of the urate crystals.