As a high school athlete, I was always pushing protein. I didn’t pay attention to balanced nutrition. I just ate whatever I could to down 200 grams of protein each day.
After a few months, I developed the most classic signs of gout: my big toe was swollen, red and it hurt more than I could imagine. The disease came on like a freight train in the middle of the night; it felt like the train ran over just my big toe.
Despite the agony, I, like many people who have gout, thought I could take care of it myself. I took ibuprofen and limped to school. This cycle repeated itself every couple months through the rest of high school and into college.
Finally, I realized taking pain medication and sleeping it off wasn’t really working. In fact, it wasn’t working at all. After dropping a course because I missed so many classes, I told my dad, a family physician, about my problem. He prescribed me a uric-acid lowering medication, which helps keep gout flares at bay.
As I transitioned from college to medical school, my dad repeatedly urged me to see a gout specialist. I was hesitant, but my dad persisted. I finally agreed. The experience was life changing. It also reinforced for me the power of helping people through medicine.
I saw several rheumatologists as I went through medical school. With every visit, I was better able to link what they were telling me with how I felt and what I was learning in the classroom. In addition to keeping up with my medication, I also changed my lifestyle and began using a plant-based diet to help keep me healthy and my disease in control.
Now, I share these same messages with my patients.
Medicine is the most important tool for managing gout. But it shouldn’t be the only tool patients use. I encourage my patients to also consider fitness and lifestyle to complement their medications. This multi-pronged approach can also improve other co-occurring conditions such as diabetes or thyroid disease.
Taking medications, being physically active, watching what you eat and living a healthy lifestyle are all necessary to manage gout. Doing any of them is hard. Doing them all, and consistently, is even more challenging.
“I understand,” I tell my patients. “I was there, too.” I let my patients know that once you have gout, you have it forever. But it doesn’t have to be a burden forever.
I like to think my story gives patients hope. I know my gout experience has made me a better clinician. My patients and I share a common diagnosis and I hope, too, we will share in our long-term success managing gout.