What's so funny about having gout?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012 - 4:01pm IST | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
The number of people afflicted by the much-mocked disease has doubled. As Michael Leapman knows, it's no laughing matter

Nobody laughs at people who contract arthritis, influenza, heart disease or most other scourges that afflict us. But gout? This intensely painful condition has for centuries been the butt of comedians and cartoonists. So if you are in the mood for a chuckle, find yourself a copy of the journal Rheumatology, which has just published a study showing that in the past 10 years the number of sufferers from this hilarious disease has almost doubled.

The reason we find gout funny almost certainly lies in its causes, so brutally spelled out by Anthony James, professor of neuro-rheumatology at Manchester University: "Gout is increasing because of bad habits. We drink too much, eat the wrong food, do little exercise and are overweight."

So it's the product of indulgence, the disease of men (seldom women) who can afford a lavish lifestyle and can be depicted by cartoonists sitting in deep leather armchairs in the gentlemen's clubs of Pall Mall, sipping port and resting their swollen protuberances on the footstools provided.

In short, they are easy targets for mockers, notable among them James Gillray, the acid-penned caricaturist who took delight in lampooning King George III, one of history's many eminent sufferers.

Among other prominent gout sufferers were Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Luciano Pavarotti, the tenor, whose ability to reach the top notes could well have been triggered by that agonising jab of pain in his left toe. Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary, admitted to the ailment but "it however never climbed higher than my ankles".

Yet, happily for we sufferers, the stereotype of age, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle is challenged by several professional sportsmen who have been diagnosed while still active, or shortly after retirement. One of the youngest is Harry Kewell, an Australian international footballer, who was 27 when first afflicted in 2006.

The disease is caused by the body's over-production of uric acid, often the result of excessive consumption of alcohol or red meat. The acid forms crystals in the blood stream and these eventually lodge themselves low in the body, typically in a big toe. The resultant swelling can be agonising and crippling.

According to Black's Medical Dictionary, the condition is infrequent in men under 40. Always an early adopter, I was barely past that age when I had my first attack. As a newspaper correspondent of traditional stamp, I was almost certainly guilty of three of Prof James's four deadly sins - the exception being the one about exercise, because I was then, and still am, an enthusiastic walker and gardener.

The onset came in dramatic circumstances. I was reporting the launch of a space shuttle at Cape Kennedy (formerly Cape Canaveral) in Florida. On the eve of the launch I had driven to the Cape for an initial briefing; at the end of it we were advised not to leave the site, because the streets around it would be blocked the following morning by crowds waiting to see the elegant craft soar into the stratosphere.

As I dutifully settled down to sleep in the car, I suddenly felt a piercing, throbbing pain in my left foot. I had no idea what it was, but it kept me awake for most of the night, so that I could scarcely force my eyes open to witness the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

After two or three days the swelling and pain subsided, only to return a few weeks later. Gout was soon diagnosed. But nowadays those afflicted do not have to suffer, for there is a drug called allopurinol that prevents the uric acid from crystallising, and has no harmful side-effects. I have been taking it daily for more than 30 years.

Before its discovery, the recurring pain of gout was something you would not wish on your worst enemies - unless you were Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the 18th-century writer. In a letter to her friend Horace Walpole, she declared: "People wish their enemies dead - but I do not; I say give them the gout."

And where did I find this spiteful quote? In The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. You've got to laugh, haven't you?


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