Notwithstanding the name, this disease has no connection with either gout or the other forms of rheumatism described. It occurs much more frequently in women, with the exception of that form in which a single joint is attacked. The disease may appear at any age, but more often it begins between the years of thirty and fifty five. The cause is still a matter of doubt, although it often follows, or is associated with, nervous diseases, and in other cases the onset seems to be connected with the existence of influenza or gonorrhea, so that it may be of germ origin. Constant exposure to cold and dampness, excessive care and anxiety, and injury are thought to favor the disease. The disease is sometimes limited to the smaller joints of the fingers and toes, little, hard knobs appearing on them. At times the joints may be swollen, tender, and red, and are usually so at the beginning of the disease, as well as at irregular intervals, owing to indigestion, or following injury. At first only one joint, as of the middle finger, may be attacked, and often the corresponding finger on the other hand is next affected. The joints of the fingers become enlarged, deformed, and stiffened. The results of the disease are permanent so far as the deformity is concerned and the stiffness which causes interference with the movement of the finger joints, but the disease may stop during any period of its development, leaving a serviceable, though somewhat crippled, hand. In these cases the larger joints are not generally involved. There is some evidence to indicate that this form of the disease is more commonly seen in the long lived.
General Form. In this type the disease tends to attack all the joints, and, in many cases, to go from bad to worse. The hands are usually first attacked, then the knees, feet, and other joints. In the worst cases every joint in the body becomes diseased, so that even movements of the jaw may become difficult. There are at first slight swelling, pain and redness about the joints, with tenderness on pressure. Creaking and grating are often heard during motion of the affected joints. This condition may improve or subside for intervals, but gradually the joints become misshapen and deformed. The joints are enlarged, and irregular and stiff; the fingers become drawn over toward the little finger, or bent toward the palm, and are wasted and clawlike. The larger limbs are often bent and cannot be straightened, and the muscles waste away, making the joints look larger. In the worst cases the patient becomes absolutely crippled, helpless, and bedridden, and the joints become immovable. The pain may be great and persistent, or slight. Usually the pain grows less as the disease advances. Numbness and tingling of the skin often trouble the patient, and the skin is sometimes smooth and glossy or freckled.
The general health suffers, and weakness, anæmia, and dyspepsia are common. Even though most of the joints become useless, there is often sufficient suppleness in the fingers to allow of their use, as in writing or knitting. In old men the disease is seen attacking one joint alone, as the hip, shoulder, knee, and spine. Children are occasionally sufferers, and in young women it may follow frequent confinements or nursing, and often begins in them like a mild attack of rheumatic fever. The heart is not damaged by rheumatic gout.
It is frequently impossible to distinguish rheumatic gout from chronic rheumatism in the beginning. In the latter, creaking and grating sounds on movement of the joints are less marked, the small joints, as of the hand, are not so generally attacked, nor are there as great deformity and loss of motion as is seen in late cases of rheumatic gout.
Outlook. It often happens that after attacking several joints, the disease is completely arrested and the patient becomes free from pain, and only a certain amount of interference with the use of the joint and stiffness remain. Life is not necessarily shortened by the disease. The deformity and crippling are permanent.
Treatment. Rheumatic gout is a chronic disease in most instances, and requires the careful study and continuous care of the medical man. He may frequently be able to arrest it in the earlier stages, and prevent a life of pain and helplessness. In a general way nourishing food, as milk, eggs, cream, and butter, with abundance of fresh vegetables, should be taken to the extent of the digestive powers. Everything that tends to reduce the patient’s strength must be avoided. Cod liver oil and tonics should be used over long periods. Various forms of baths are valuable, as the hot air bath, and hot natural or artificial baths. A dry, warm climate is most appropriate, and flannel clothing should be worn the year round. Moderate exercise and outdoor life, in warm weather, are advisable, and massage, except during the acute attacks of pain and inflammation, is beneficial. Surgical measures will sometimes aid patients in regaining the usefulness of crippled limbs.