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Understanding Celiac Disease

A decade ago few people had heard of Celiac disease, but today the condition, also called Celiac sprue and gluten sensitivity, is recognized to affect as many as two million Americans. Celiac disease is caused by an individual’s inability to tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and also used in products ranging from glue used on stamps and envelopes to medicines.

Symptoms of Celiac

The disease can manifest itself in a variety of symptoms including heartburn, abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, bone and joint pain, muscle cramps, and weight loss or gain. However, many of those affected don’t know they have gluten intolerance, and attribute their symptoms to other causes. Moreover, celiac’s signposts are similar to other gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease, making it challenging for physicians without proper training to render the correct diagnosis.

The Causes and Treatment of Celiac

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. In affected individuals, the immune system responds to gluten by producing autoantibodies, as it would to an invading infectious agent. The autoantibodies in turn damage villi, the tiny fingerlike projects lining the small intestine, which are essential for absorbing nutrients. Diagnosis of celiac usually begins with a blood test to check the level of autoantibodies associated with the disease. If these autoantibodies are present, an endoscopic examination of the small intestine may be recommended so we may biopsy a tissue sample of the villi. If the diagnosis of celiac is confirmed, a gluten-free diet can alleviate the symptoms and prevent complications of the disease. It is not usually advised to start a gluten free diet before testing, since it is difficult to confirm diagnosis later on.

If there is any suspicion of Celiac sprue, your first step in diagnosing the disease is scheduling a consultation with a physician at Putnam Gastroenterology. They can rapidly assess your risk for celiac and help decide if you are an appropriate candidate to get screened.