Celiac disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged by the consumption of gluten, the main protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. It is sometimes referred to as celiac sprue, nontropical sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
The small intestine is lined with tiny, hair-like projections called villi. These villi increase the surface area of the small intestine, maximizing the space where vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are absorbed from food. The consumption of gluten by a person with celiac disease triggers an immune reaction occurs in the small intestine that damages the villi. Without villi, the body is unable to absorb nutrients necessary for health and growth. Eventually, this malabsorbtion causes nutrient deficiencies that affect the brain, the peripheral nervous system, the bones, the liver, and other vital organs. In children, malabsorbtion can lead to developmental abnormalities and stunted growth.
It is often difficult to diagnose celiac disease because the symptoms are general and vary from person to person. There are no typical signs and symptoms of celiac disease. Often, celiac is accompanied with abdominal pain, bloating, intermittent diarrhea, and gas. However, some people with celiac may have no gastrointestinal symptoms at all, yet they may experience less obvious symptoms, such as irritability or depression, joint pain, muscle cramps, skin rash, mouth sores, and tingling in the legs and feet (neuropathy). Doctors can also look for indications of the malabsorbtion that results from celiac disease, including weight loss, diarrhea, weakness and fatigue, abnormal stools, stunted growth, dental and bone disorders (such as osteoporosis), and anemia.
It is thought that celiac disease is an under-diagnosed condition, and it is actually much more common than previously believed. Because the symptoms of celiac disease can mimic those of other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastric ulcers, Crohn's disease, parasite infections, anemia, skin disorders or a nervous condition, it is important to see a doctor to be tested for celiac disease. Most doctors will do initial blood test in order to detect high levels of antibodies that would indicate an immune response to gluten. To confirm the diagnosis, a doctor may need to microscopically examine a small portion of intestinal tissue to check for damage to the villi. He or she can do this by inserting a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) through the mouth, esophagus and stomach into the small intestine and taking a small sample. It is important to see a doctor as soon as possible, because untreated celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, loss of calcium and bone density, lactose intolerance, certain cancers, and nervous system disorders.
There is no cure for celiac disease. However, anyone can effectively manage this disorder by eliminating gluten from their diet. Once gluten is removed from your diet, inflammation in the small intestine can heal and symptoms are often quickly reversed.