One of my earliest childhood memories is of waiting for my father, who worked shifts, to get up from bed or home from work and running full tilt at him for a hug - only to hear my mother say, “leave your father alone, his gout is playing up”.
Dad would raise his hands and say, “careful my sore toe is acting up”.
Does Dad think I am strong enough to hurt him, I wondered. What is “his gout” and why is it misbehaving?
When I did bump his toe or knee I knew that it was terrible. The look on his face was of indescribable agony.
It turns out that gout is a menace that significantly affects the quality of life and everyday routines for sufferers. While the condition affects both sexes, it is nine times more prevalent in men than women.
Sadly, it seems that gout also runs in families, with one of my brothers suffering recurrent attacks so painful that it greatly interferes with his ability to interact with family, exercise and carry out normal activities when in the midst of a gout flare.
Historically, gout was known as "the disease of kings" and was believed to be caused by rich diets feasted upon by the wealthy.
Today we know that gout is indeed triggered by rich living, but diet is not the only cause. Rather it is about how the body handles uric acid. The consumption of certain foods, medication and alcohol builds up, reducing the body’s ability to eliminate excess uric acid.
For sufferers, this excessive uric acid collects in the joints and tissues of the body and forms crystals. The accumulation of these crystals causes significant pain, swelling and heat. Sufferers report that the slightest pressure on the affected area - even from the brushing of the skin by a bed sheet - can cause severe pain, enough to rouse them from sleep.
In recent times the standard of care for reducing or eliminating gout flares has relied upon medications such as allopurinol, colchicine and indomethacin, as well as other anti-inflammatory medications. The treatment aims to reduce the level of uric acid in the body and, in acute attacks, reduce the inflammation and the pain.
In some individuals, treatment of the disorder can sometimes produce unpleasant and unwanted side effects. Therefore, the search for improved treatment is ongoing.
Perhaps my experience watching my father writhe in pain was a factor in my career choice. Today, I am a registered nurse co-ordinating a wide range of health studies at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.
One of the studies we are working on is a new treatment for gout and I meet sufferers just like my dad. One of them recently said, “The pain [of gout] is blinding at times, almost crippling....it affects many day-to-day activities and causes me to fear many situations, including playing with my kids”.
I hope that our works makes a real difference and improves the quality of life for these men, who simply want to play with their children and go about their normal activities without fear.
Footnote: The Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute is currently seeking volunteers who suffer gout, are being treated with allopurinol but not getting relief from their symptoms. The trial is for a new medication. Phone 4221 4333 to find out more.