Celiac Disease Patients May Miss Nerve Damage Signs; Possible Link Between Disorders

Celiac Disease Neuropathy
Neuropathy patients may just need to cut gluten from their diet to stop the pain. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Celiac disease is still a largely misunderstood autoimmune disorder that wreaks havoc on the digestive tract by eating sometimes even the tiniest bit of gluten. It’s a life-changing disorder, and a new finding may add to the list of adverse symptoms: neuropathy. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology has found celiac disease patients are at an increased risk for nerve damage.

“It’s quite a high figure, compared to many other outcomes in celiac disease,” the study’s coauthor Dr. Jonas Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and professor at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, said in a statement. “There is a real association between celiac disease and neuropathy… [and] we have precise risk estimates in a way we haven’t had before.”

Swedish researchers studied medical records between 1969 and 2008 from over 28,000 patients with celiac disease and compared them to 139,000 people who were never diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder. Those with celiac disease were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from nerve damage also known as neuropathy. Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, causes gastrointestinal pain and discomfort to those who consume gluten products.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley — that means you have to watch the type of bread, pasta, and even pizza dough you eat every day, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. When a person diagnosed with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system attacks the small finger-like nodes that line the small intestine. The villi are responsible for absorbing nutrients, but when they become damaged they’re unable to properly extract nutrients.

Celiac disease affects one out of every 100 people throughout the world. In America, two-and-a-half million Americans are undiagnosed and at risk for serious health problems, according to the Foundation. If it goes untreated, after a while a person can develop disorders like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy, migraines, short stature, intestinal cancers, and now nerve damage.

It was approximately five years ago that researchers first discovered a possible link between celiac disease and neuropathy, but this is the first study to find a strong correlation. Neuropathy occurs when nerve cells or neurons are damaged or destroyed, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Symptoms vary, but neuropathy commonly leads to tingling, numbness, burning sensations, severe pain, pressure, unable to feel pain or temperature, loss of reflexes and coordination, and the feeling that you’re wearing socks and gloves when you’re not.

Currently, 30 to 40 percent of all neuropathy cases are idiopathic, meaning they have no known cause. What if a percentage of those suffering from mysterious neuropathy could fix their pain by being treated for celiac disease? Researchers need to expand their study with a larger number of study participants, but the link is there and it needs to be unraveled, according to researchers. In the future, when a person is diagnosed with neuropathy but can’t figure out the cause, Ludvigsson hopes their neurologist might consider screening the patient for celiac disease. A gluten-free diet may actually stop the pain.

“I think this paper could actually change clinical practice somewhat,” Ludvigsson said. “Some of these patients will be diagnosed with celiac disease, will have a gluten-free diet, and will actually feel better and be healthier.”

Source: Thawani SP, Brannagan TH, Lebwohl B, Green PHR, and Ludvigsson. Risk of Neuropathy Among 28,232 Patients With Biopsy-Verified Celiac Disease. JAMA Neurology. 2015.

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