Symptoms of celiac disease can seem unrelated to digestion, including joint pain and balance problems, and usual signs, diarrhea and fatigue.
But more than half of celiac patients have symptoms that aren’t so easily linked to celiac, like headaches, joint pain, skin rashes, and problems with balance.
In children, the symptoms can include being short or having a delayed puberty, or even learning disabilities.
What is celiac disease?
The body's immune system overreacts to a protein in food called gluten, and damages the vili, tiny, hair-like projections that line your small intestine and absorb vitamins and other nutrients in food.
A combination of some gene variations and environmental factors may be linked to the disease but don’t trigger symptoms in everyone. You’re more at risk if you have a family member with celiac disease, if you have type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, autoimmune thyroid disease, Addison's diease, or rheumatoid arthritis.
Sometimes symptoms of celiac disease are triggered for the first time by a shock to your body — possibly surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress.
Untreated, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, which in turns triggers a host of problems. For example, malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D may lead to softer bones in children and loss of bone density in adults. The damage to the small intestine may make you suffer pain and diarrhea after eating lactose in dairy products. The risk of small bowel cancer and other cancers increases. You might develop seizures or problems with the nerves in your hands and feet.
The main treatment is to steer clear of gluten in your diet, checking all labels. (A dietitian or nutritionist can help you plan a diet.) But as many as 30 percent of patients don’t respond well to a gluten-free diet, either because they fail to avoid all gluten or they have other problems, such as an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.
March 25, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA