Celiac disease is a digestive and autoimmune disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine when you eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The damage makes it hard for the body to absorb nutrients, leaving you malnourished—no matter how much you eat.
It’s estimated that about 1% of Americans have celiac disease, though many have been undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. Left untreated, it can lead to a number of other disorders, including infertility, reduced bone density, neurological disorders, some cancers and other autoimmune diseases. In children, malabsorption can affect growth and development.
Take Charge of Your Digestive Health Today
Gastroenterologists at CHI Health are digestive health experts that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease, providing immediate relief for your symptoms and helping you manage your condition with confidence.
Call one of our clinic locations to make your appointment with a specialist near you. You can also find a skilled gastroenterologist anytime online.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
There are more than 300 symptoms of celiac disease, which can vary among sufferers. The most common signs include:
- Digestive problems (abdominal bloating, constipation, pain, gas, diarrhea and pale stools)
- Acid reflux and heartburn
- Cancer of the intestine (rare)
- Damage to dental enamel
- Headaches and fatigue
- Iron deficiency anemia (low blood count)
- Joint pain
- Miscarriage or infertility
- Missed menstrual periods
- Mouth sores
- Musculoskeletal problems (muscle cramps, joint and bone pain)
- Osteoporosis (loss of bone density)
- Reduced functioning of the spleen
- Severe skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
- Tingling sensation in the legs (caused by nerve damage and low calcium)
- Weight loss
Effect on Children
Celiac disease can also cause birth defects such as neural tube defects (improper formation of the spine), caused by poor absorption of nutrients such as folic acid.
In infants, typical signs and symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Swollen belly
- Failure to thrive or weight loss
Older children may experience:
- Delayed puberty
- Growth problems
- Neurologic symptoms, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, headaches and lack of muscle coordination
Diagnosing Celiac Disease
Your gastroenterologist at CHI Health will first perform a physical exam and review your medical history, which is important since the condition tends to run in families. Once complete, your doctor may order a number of tests to officially diagnose the disease.
These tests may include one or a combination of:
- Blood tests: Elevated levels of certain substances in your blood (antibodies) indicate an immune reaction to gluten. These tests detect celiac disease even if you have only mild symptoms or none at all. Blood tests can also identify a low level of iron, which can cause anemia.
- Endoscopy: If your blood tests indicate celiac disease, your doctor may order an endoscopy, a procedure in which a thin, hollow tube is inserted through your mouth to view your small intestine and take a small tissue sample (biopsy) to analyze for damage. This procedure is performed at our dedicated Endoscopy Center, specially designed to maximize your comfort.
- Capsule video endoscopy: This innovative technique uses a tiny wireless camera to take pictures of your entire small intestine. The camera sits inside a vitamin-sized capsule, which you swallow. As the capsule travels through your digestive tract, the camera takes thousands of detailed images that are transmitted to a recorder.
Treating Celiac Disease
There is no cure for celiac disease, but following a strict gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms and promote intestinal healing. Dropping gluten from your diet usually improves the condition within a few days and eventually ends the symptoms of the disease. Your gastroenterologist may refer you to CHI Health’s Nutrition Education Services to help guide your new dietary decisions.
If your nutritional deficiencies are severe, your doctor or dietitian may recommend taking vitamin and mineral supplements, in some cases through an IV if intestinal damage is extreme. Your doctor may also recommend steroids to control inflammation while the intestine heals.