Gout is a form of arthritis -- an inflammation of the joints -- that causes sudden, severe attacks of pain, tenderness, redness, warmth, and swelling in some joints. It usually affects one joint at a time, although it can be in several joints at once.
The large toe is most often affected, but gout can also affect other joints in the leg -- such as the knee, ankle, and foot -- and less often, the hand, wrist, fingers, and elbow. The spine is almost never affected.
If someone has gout on and off for years, eventually uric acid crystals may accumulate in the body to form gritty nodules called "tophi." These nodules can appear as lumps under the skin near joints such as the elbows and fingers, at the rim of the ears, or in the kidneys.
Uric acid comes from purines, which are the natural breakdown products of the genetic material in cells, RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Some foods contain large amounts of purines, especially red meats and organ meats (such as liver and kidneys), as well as some shellfish, anchovies, and alcohol. Purines are broken down to uric acid in the body.
Uric acid in normal amounts remains dissolved in the blood and easily passes through the kidneys, leaving the body through the urine as waste. However, uric acid in high amounts makes a person more likely to develop gout. That's because the uric acid can form into crystals in higher amounts. Gout crystals act like ground glass in the joint, causing significant pain and joint destruction as well as possible kidney damage.
The amount of uric acid in your blood can change depending on what you eat and drink, how hydrated or dehydrated you are, your overall health, how much alcohol you drink, and the medicines you are taking. It can change in response to a sudden illness.