Gout is caused by too much uric acid in the bloodstream. Over time, deposits of uric acid crystals collect around bone or cartilage. The build-up of uric acid may cause no symptoms at first. If the area becomes inflamed, a gout attack occurs, with swelling, redness, and intense pain.
Acute gout attacks can be treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, or more powerful prescription medicines. But after a first attack, there is about an 80% chance of another flare-up within the next two years.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our October 2011 issue, we asked Dimitrios Pappas, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, about the long-term effects of one popular childhood activity: knuckle cracking.
Q: My 10-year-old son cracks his knuckles. Is it true that it causes arthritis?
Several medications are approved to lower uric acid levels and reduce the risk of flare-ups. But in patients with serious medical conditions in addition to gout, effective treatment can be difficult. Some of the most common co-existing conditions that complicate treatment are:
When uric acid levels in the bloodstream remain too high, more and more crystals are deposited. Gout can become a chronic condition, leading to painful and disfiguring damage to joints.
The course of gout varies considerably from person to person. Signs that chronic gout may be getting worse include:
More frequent and longer-lasting flare-ups of gouty arthritis: As chronic gout gets worse, flare-ups occur more often and last longer. Over time, the inflammation causes permanent damage to bone and cartilage.
Flare-ups in other parts of the body: In about half of all patients with gout, the first attack occurs in the joint at the base of the big toe. When chronic gout occurs, other joints may be affected, including the ankle and knee.
Nodules forming under the skin: Uric acid crystals may begin to be deposited in soft tissue, forming nodules called tophi. Tophi commonly appear on the hands, fingers, elbows, and ears, but they can appear almost anywhere on the body. Tophi can be very disfiguring. Chronic gout is sometimes referred to as tophaceous gout, because of the presence of tophi.
Kidney problems: Uric acid is normally eliminated by the kidneys. Kidney disease can cause uric acid build-up and gout. But excess uric acid can also damage kidneys. Kidney problems associated with chronic gout -- and signs that chronic gout is getting worse -- include gouty kidney, kidney stones, and kidney failure.