Leading funny-man and TV presenter Jeremy Corbett says colleagues often tease him for having gout arthritis.
You see, gout is a form of arthritis, and that’s why Arthritis New Zealand uses the term ‘gout arthritis’.
“Most people, including myself, had to learn that gout is a form of arthritis. Fortunately, people are beginning to understand that genetic factors rather than food or drink are responsible for gout, and the old myths are beginning to dissipate,” says Jeremy.
While diet and the general state of your health impact gout arthritis, the real story is that the genes you were born with are by far the stand-out factor. Māori and Pacific Island heritage people seem to have a higher genetic predisposition to gout arthritis, and the illness is a big, misunderstood problem in these communities. Often, but not always, there will be multiple sufferers within the same family.
People who suffer from gout arthritis have a genetic inability to get rid of a waste product called uric acid. The rest of us find this very easy, and no matter what we eat, we’ll never have to suffer an attack of gout arthritis. But if you’re among the population of people who can’t break down uric acid, it hardens into needle-shaped crystals that cause terrible pain in joints and can lead to permanent joint and organ damage.
Talking about his colleagues on 7 Days, Jeremy says he fends off the burns on a topic that he, and lots of other gout arthritis sufferers, find it very hard to laugh about when they’re in the middle of a gout attack.
“I am quite happy to own the caricature of the gout sufferer if it means that gout gets talked about, and people learn something. Some of my older friends on the programme know that I suffer from gout, so to them, it wasn’t news when I first spoke about it. Of course, in New Zealand, especially in comedy, it’s a sign of mateship to tease someone. Pick on something about them. Those that tease me about gout know I can take it. It’s a sign of respect. That’s what I tell myself.”
But Jeremy often takes the opportunity when being teased to turn it into an educational opportunity. He wants people to speak up about their gout arthritis, to break the myths and shame, or whakama, associated with the disease. Sometimes other colleagues open up and comment things like ‘mate, I get that, and it’s not funny.’
In the beginning
“I was flatting with friends during my mid-30s when I woke up one day unable to go mountain biking. I could barely move at all. Both my knees just went out. It felt like my knees had been hit by something or that I had fallen over. The feeling went on for a couple of days, so I just lay on the couch.”
About a week went by before the pain in his knees started easing, and when his doctor told him he had suffered an attack of gout, his mind went to the common myths, and he thought his lifestyle wasn’t wanton excess, so why him?
After another couple of attacks, Jeremy decided that he’d need help to stop the disease that was badly affecting his life. He says that initially, he wasn’t keen on the medications available at the time, so he spent several years tinkering with his diet. Despite some success, down the road, his doctor was forced to tell him that if he kept letting the attacks happen, he could be facing permanent joint or even organ damage. So, Jeremy began taking Allopurinol and discovered freedom he thought he’d never get back. His message to others is that they don’t have to suffer.
“It’s funny, with the diet, there are various things you try. I’m reluctant to name any brands, but one popular spread was a big one for me in causing my gout to flare, which was distressing because I’m a huge fan! And that’s the beauty of the medication; you can go back to eating the things you like because the medication enables your body to eliminate uric acid efficiently as everyone else can.”
“People so often just get told to sort their diet out, stop drinking, which of course is great, but most of us can’t manage the disease like that alone. The medication is just sitting there, ready to go. I didn’t know that, and I’m sure many others don’t. You don’t have to take two weeks off work – because gout is that debilitating, it absolutely stops you doing anything where you’d need to move around.”
That’s another misunderstood aspect of gout arthritis that Jeremy hopes, as a comedian, he can help get people talking about: its severity.
“Even though people know what it is, unless they’ve experienced it, they don’t take it seriously, like they’re thinking, it’s not life-threatening, it’s not cancer. So when you say, ‘I’ve got gout’, it’s like saying you get the occasional headache. I try to raise awareness about how debilitating gout can be.”
“I started working on a comedy routine to portray how even the name ‘gout’ is funny, how it’s thought of as the least cool of the diseases. Because I think that’s one of the things you want to do right, is say, ‘don’t be embarrassed that you’ve got gout’. Because I think lots of people are.”
Jeremy is quite happy, he says, to be the guy that takes the comedy on the chin for gout arthritis sufferers everywhere, as long as he’s able to get in a few more accurate jabs of his own. That’s a job he can do, he says, to help make that layer of stereotype as thin as possible.
“I’m happy to talk about it; it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. I don’t know if it helps to have a comedian talk about gout, but I hope it does.”
Learn More About Gout Arthritis
Gout arthritis is the second most common form of arthritis in New Zealand and more prevalent here than anywhere else in the world. Māori and Pasifika people are particularly affected, mainly due to genetic factors.
Gout arthritis causes sudden attacks of severe pain and swelling in the joints, usually starting in the big toe. If left untreated, more attacks may occur and spread to other joints such as knees, elbows, wrists and fingers. Gout arthritis can damage joints and kidneys.