George Hook: Gout gives pain like no other

Gout is caused by excess uric acid in the body

Rugby pundit and broadcaster George Hook, who has had gout for 15 years, says it’s a pain like no other. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

Rugby pundit and broadcaster George Hook, who has had gout for 15 years, says it’s a pain like no other. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien


In my experience, all non-gout sufferers think the condition is a great joke and make wisecracks about the amount of red wine you drink and the rich food you must be eating. They see it as a rich man’s disease.

If they had the pain from gout for about five minutes, they would change their tune. I’ve probably had gout for 15 years.

The first time I got it, my big toe was twice its normal size and was angry, red and hot.

Gout is caused by excess uric acid in your system. It attacks joints, and forms in crystals which cause severe pain. Essentially, the cure for it is anti-inflammatory medicine, or whatever pain-relief medication that works for you. The thing is to start the medication early on in an attack – when you feel the first tingle, which is often in the middle of the night.

If you take medication at that point, you can do well. If you wait a few days the pain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It gets to a point where you cannot bear the weight of a single bed sheet on your toe.

Traditional area
The big toe is the traditional gout area. You’ll see a lot of paintings of these guys in Regency England sitting with their foot on a footstool in bandages.

There was no real medication to deal with it back then. At least we now have some medication.

One point people sometimes miss is that gout can be very dangerous. People might have read a few weeks ago about a fellow who experienced the UK’s first hand transplant operation. How did he lose his hand? He didn’t lose it in an accident or anything like that – he lost it because he had gout.

I am worried at the moment and have appointments with my doctor and my rheumatologist because my gout has moved to my elbow. When it started paining me, I thought I had tennis elbow.

I went to my doctor and he thought the same, but by the weekend, when I was covering the rugby in Limerick for RTÉ, I couldn’t get my hand out of my pocket.

The only place I could put my hand to get some relief was in my coat. It was incredibly painful. I literally did not get a wink of sleep the night before that game.

Anecdotal evidence
There is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence that black cherry juice reduces gout. You can also take things like Allopurinol, which is a drug that works towards reducing uric acid in your system and helps get rid of gout.

Often though, the problem is that having gout is more down to your DNA than the bottle of Chianti. If you have certain levels of uric acid, you’re goosed.

Most GPs will give drugs that help kill the pain and that’s great. Increasingly, speaking to fellow gout sufferers, a lot are taking steroids and they are actually proving effective as a means of pain relief.

Personally, I have changed my diet significantly in the past six months. I became worried about the increasing recurrence of attacks of gout I was having.

It would usually be just a few each year but now I am getting it six to eight times a year. I haven’t drank coffee in six months. I drink less tea and, while I was always a very poor person to hydrate myself, I now drink six to eight pints of water a day.

I don’t eat bananas or strawberries or other foods than can act as triggers for uric acid.

Having made the changes in diet, I lost a stone and a half and I’m thrilled with that. Still, even with all that, I had a ferocious gout attack last weekend.

It can keep me off work and then, sometimes, you struggle in work with it. In Newstalk, they laugh sometimes when they see me limping in to work. I might come in with sandals and no socks, as it would have been too painful to get my socks on.

I really only started to study the condition and take it seriously recently. Some of the attacks have been genuinely worrying me.

The morning of the Ireland v South Africa game at the Aviva, I woke up, and Ingrid, my wife, was downstairs.

She could hear me crying and she came upstairs and I was trying to get from the bed to the bathroom. My only way to do it was by crawling and even while crawling I was screaming in pain and I cried. I had to get emergency treatment to get into the stadium.

Nothing compares
I had a walking stick and I struggled up the steps into the studio. It isn’t a pain I have ever experienced. As a rugby player, I have had broken bones, dislocated kneecaps and torn tendons, but nothing compares to this.

I use steroids now also, but the problem is there is a difference between treating the symptoms and curing the causes.

I have made diet changes and I’m taking Allopurinol, but neither has worked to this point. I know though for some people these things do work so I’m hopeful.

Shane Coleman, who is our political editor in Newstalk, was talking about purgatory the other day.

He was saying the Christian Brothers told him that that if you took the worst pain you had ever experienced in your life then you could understand what it would be like to be in purgatory for one second. To be honest, purgatory no longer holds any fear for me.