Gout: "Old" disease still causing pain, from the Harvard Health Letter

To many people, gout sounds like a malady from a Dickens novel. But this joint disease is still very much with us, and is affecting a growing number of Americans. The encouraging news is that almost all cases are treatable, reports the April 2010 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.

Gout is a form of arthritis. It is caused by a buildup of uric acid in the blood. When uric acid crystallizes in the joints, it causes inflammation and pain. Gout is becoming more common partly because of the obesity epidemic. Dietary choices also raise the risk of gout. Consuming a lot of meat, seafood, sugar, and alcohol—especially beer—can trigger attacks of gout. Soda drinkers are also at risk, since there is evidence that fructose, the main sweetener in many sugared beverages, increases uric acid levels in the blood. High blood pressure is another major risk factor, though this gets complicated because diuretics taken to lower blood pressure can also increase uric acid levels.

People afflicted with gout are usually told to lose weight; cut back on alcohol, meat, and seafood; and eat more fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods. A big decision gout patients face is whether to start taking a drug to lower uric acid levels, notes the Harvard Health Letter. It's important to stick with such drugs, often for life, because going on and off a uric acid–lowering medication can actually provoke attacks of gout. Drug therapy is an option to consider if you have frequent attacks (three times a year), severe attacks that are difficult to control, gout with kidney stones, or attacks that affect several joints.

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