By Kent Bressler, MA, RN
As a boy I would see my grandfather in his worn recliner, foot elevated, with his big toe as red as an apple. One day I asked him what happened, and he joked, “Don’t you know? I’m royalty. I have the king’s disease.”
Only a man as tough as my grandfather could make light of the pain that comes from gout. It has been called the king’s disease because of a problematic, long-held misconception that it affects only those who, like a king, overindulge in rich foods, red meat and alcohol. People who live with the disease know better. Gout can strike healthy eaters, especially those with a family history of the disease. And when it does, it interrupts daily life with excruciating attacks.
I have been living with gout for nearly 40 years, and I can still recall the agony of my first gout flare. It felt like someone was sticking a hot poker directly into my big toe. The pain was so intense that even the touch of a thin bed sheet caused me to cry out. When I reached the ER, the doctor asked, “How are you even walking?”
That night began my lifelong education on what the “king’s disease” is really all about. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
- Gout is a form of arthritis and can be debilitating for those affected. I’ve learned that while gout attacks are widely known for causing pain in the big toe, flares can affect other parts of the body as well.
- People living with gout should seek a diagnosis. This is key! After visiting with my doctor, I started on medication that reduces the uric acid in my body. Taking medicine regularly helped me stabilize and reduce the number of attacks. As of today, I haven’t had a gout attack in over a year. You can successfully manage gout – but seeking treatment is critical.
- Moderation is key. Through my many years of living with gout, I also realized the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Being physically active, drinking water and watching what you eat are all necessary to manage gout.
Trying to achieve all of those can be challenging, but I found that moderation is key. I do not deprive myself of anything. For example, I love asparagus and continue to eat it. But I also know I will trigger a gout flare if I eat too much.
- Patients need a support system. Considering the level of pain gout inflicts, and the importance of successful treatment, it’s important to have support from family and friends. In my case, my family’s experience reflects the role that genetics plays in gout. Several cousins and other family members have gout, so I can go to them for advice and support. My brother, who donated a kidney to me when mine stopped functioning correctly, has also battled gout. We have shared our frustrations and triumphs battling gout over the years.
Finally, I’ve learned the value of using my experiences to encourage others, even beyond my own family. I urge people living with gout to keep learning, keep sharing their stories and struggles, and keep the conversation about gout alive.
Kent Bressler, MA, RN, is a board member and ambassador of the America Association of Kidney patients and is active with the National Kidney Foundation as a peer mentor and advocate. He is co-founder and Director of Kidney Solutions, which assists patients and families in finding living kidney donors.