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Best treatment for gout

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Written by Andrew Le, MD.
Medically reviewed by
Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Last updated June 16, 2024

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Introduction

Gout is a painful and potentially debilitating type of inflammatory arthritis that affects millions of people worldwide. Gout causes sudden, severe attacks of pain, swelling, and redness in the joints. While there is no cure for this chronic condition, gout can be effectively managed through a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and alternative therapies. By taking a proactive approach to treatment, people with gout can lower the frequency and severity of flare-ups and prevent long-term joint damage.

What is Gout?

Gout is a type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. Uric acid is a waste product that normally dissolves in the blood and is eliminated by the kidneys. However, when the body produces too much uric acid or the kidneys cannot efficiently remove it, the excess uric acid can form needle-like crystals that build up in the joints and surrounding areas. This buildup triggers an intense inflammatory response.1,2

The most common symptom of gout is sudden, severe pain in one or more joints, often starting in the big toe. The affected joint may also feel hot, swollen, and extremely sensitive to touch. Gout attacks often come at night, and can last for several days to weeks before improving. Without proper treatment, these attacks may become more frequent and affect multiple joints over time.1,2

Risk factors like genetics, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a diet high in purines (a compound found in red meat, organ meats, and certain seafoods) can increase the likelihood of developing gout. Men are more likely to develop gout than women, though women's risk increases after menopause.2,3

Diagnosing gout involves a combination of clinical assessment, joint fluid analysis, and imaging tests. A healthcare provider will examine the affected joint and may recommend extracting a sample of joint fluid to look for uric acid crystals under a microscope. X-rays, ultrasounds, or dual-energy CT scans can help the provider see joint damage or uric acid in the soft tissues.2,4

If left untreated, gout can lead to serious complications over time. Repeated attacks can cause permanent joint damage and deformity. Hard, chalky deposits called tophi can form under the skin around the joints.

Medications for Gout

Medications are used to treat both acute attacks and to prevent future flare-ups of gout. Gout medications relieve pain and inflammation during an attack and lower uric acid levels in the blood to prevent crystal formation.

For acute gout attacks, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen are often recommended. These medications work by blocking the production of inflammatory chemicals in the body, helping to reduce pain and swelling within 24 hours.9 Colchicine is another option for treating acute attacks. It works by disrupting the inflammatory process that causes white blood cells to build up in the affected joint. However, colchicine can cause side effects like nausea and diarrhea, especially at higher doses.10

In some cases, corticosteroids may be prescribed for acute gout attacks. These strong anti-inflammatory drugs can be taken orally or injected directly into the affected joint for rapid relief. Long-term use of corticosteroids can lead to side effects like weight gain, high blood sugar, and an increased risk of infections.11

Healthcare providers often prescribe medications that lower uric acid levels in the blood to help prevent gout attacks. The goal of urate-lowering therapy (ULT) is to maintain serum uric acid levels below 6 mg/dL, which can help dissolve existing crystals and prevent new ones from forming.13 Allopurinol and febuxostat are two common ULTs that work by limiting xanthine oxidase, the enzyme which produces uric acid in the body.12 Probenecid is another option that helps the kidneys eliminate uric acid.14

It is important to understand that gout is a chronic condition and it is important to follow through with prescribed medication courses, even if you start to feel better.

Lifestyle Changes for Gout

While medications are important in treating gout, lifestyle changes can also help in managing this chronic condition. By making specific changes to diet, weight, exercise habits, and stress levels, people with gout can reduce their risk of flare-ups and improve their overall health.

One of the most important lifestyle factors in gout management is diet.

Diet

While no single food can cause or cure gout, certain foods can affect uric acid levels and inflammation in the body. A gout-friendly diet emphasizes plant-based foods, limits purine-rich meats and seafoods, and reduces added sugars and alcohol.

Purines are natural compounds found in many foods that break down into uric acid when metabolized. Foods highest in purines include:

  • Organ meats
  • Game meats
  • Certain fish (anchovies, sardines, herring)
  • Yeast extracts17

Limiting fructose and added sugars is also helpful. Fructose, a type of sugar found both naturally and artificially, can increase uric acid production in the body.18 Avoiding or minimizing sugary drinks, desserts, and snacks can help keep uric acid levels in check.

Fruits, vegetables (excluding those very high in purines like asparagus and spinach), whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all better choices.26 Low-fat dairy products can help lower your risk of gout as they have uric acid-lowering effects.33

Staying well-hydrated is also important for gout prevention. Drinking water helps flush excess uric acid out of the body through urine. Experts recommend aiming for at least 8 cups (64 ounces) of water per day, and more in hot weather or with heavy exercise.17

In addition to specific food choices, overall dietary patterns matter for gout. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, has been shown to reduce uric acid levels and gout risk.31,32 The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fish, and plant foods, may also be beneficial.

Exercise and weight loss

In addition to dietary changes, maintaining a healthy weight is important for gout management. Excess body weight is a significant risk factor for gout, as it can increase uric acid production and reduce the kidneys' ability to excrete uric acid efficiently.20,21 Losing weight gradually (about 1-2 pounds per week) through a combination of diet and exercise can lower uric acid levels and reduce gout risk.27

Regular physical activity is helpful for gout in several ways. It helps with weight loss, improves joint function, and reduces inflammation in the body. Low-impact exercises like walking, cycling, swimming, and tai chi are generally safe and well-tolerated for people with gout.19 Experts recommend aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, spread out over multiple sessions.22

High-intensity exercises like running or weight lifting may sometimes trigger flare-ups. It's best to start slowly, listen to the body's signals, and consult with your healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise regimen.19

Stress management

Managing stress is an important lifestyle factor in gout prevention. Chronic stress has been linked to higher uric acid levels and an increased risk of gout attacks.23,24 Practicing stress-reducing activities like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or hobbies can help lower overall inflammation and promote well-being.

Getting enough quality sleep is also helpful in managing gout. Poor sleep has been linked to increased inflammation and a higher risk of gout attacks.25 Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and practice good sleep hygiene. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and build a comfortable sleep environment.

While lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to fully control gout, they are an important part of a comprehensive treatment plan. By working with healthcare providers to develop personalized dietary, exercise, and stress management strategies, you can take an active role in managing your condition and reducing your risk of flare-ups.

Alternative Treatments for Gout

Along with traditional medications, you may be able to help reduce some of the inflammation with herbal remedies and supplements that have anti-inflammatory properties. Some of these are:

Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement.

Preventing Gout Flare-ups

By taking proactive steps to reduce uric acid levels and minimize triggers, people with gout can decrease the frequency and severity of painful attacks. Some strategies for preventing gout flare-ups are:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Following a gout-friendly diet
  • Getting regular exercise

Lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to control gout and prevent future attacks. In this case, healthcare providers may recommend medications to help lower uric acid levels and reduce the risk of flare-ups.44,45

Managing other health conditions that can contribute to gout is also important for preventing flare-ups. Conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease can raise uric acid levels and make gout treatment more difficult.35 Working with your healthcare provider to keep these conditions well-controlled can help reduce the risk of gout attacks.

Conclusion

Gout is a complex and potentially debilitating condition, but with the right treatment approach, it is possible to effectively manage symptoms and prevent long-term complications. A comprehensive gout management plan typically involves a combination of medications to lower uric acid levels and control inflammation, lifestyle changes to reduce risk factors and triggers, and in some cases, alternative therapies to complement conventional treatments.

Ultimately, the best treatment approach for gout is one that is personalized to your unique needs, preferences, and health status. Working closely with a healthcare provider to develop a comprehensive management plan can help you improve your symptoms and prevent future attacks.

Citations:

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Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Jeff brings to Buoy 20 years of clinical experience as a physician assistant in urgent care and internal medicine. He also has extensive experience in healthcare administration, most recently as developer and director of an urgent care center. While completing his doctorate in Health Sciences at A.T. Still University, Jeff studied population health, healthcare systems, and evidence-based medicine....
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