Celiac disease is an autoimmune gastrointestinal medical condition in which damage to the inner lining of the small intestine occurs. For those who have celiac disease, a substance called gliadin (a grain protein in gluten) triggers an unusual immune response that leads to flattening and altering of the millions of microscopic finger-like projections (villi) that line the inner wall of the small intestine. When the damaged villi do not work properly, the body cannot obtain enough of the essential proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals from food that are necessary for good health.
There are many different types of nerve damage, also known as neuropathy. The most common of these is peripheral neuropathy, which causes pins and needles, numbness, and burning sensations.
Researchers have long noticed a link between celiac disease and neuropathy; they first reported this association in 1966. One study found that 2.5-8% of patients with a type of neuropathy called distal symmetric polyneuropathy had celiac disease, which is much higher than the normal prevalence of about 1% of the population. In other studies, researchers found that celiac disease patients experienced more neuropathy than would be expected, but these were small studies.
Recently, researchers conducted a more thorough investigation of the link between celiac disease and neuropathy.1 They compared 28,232 celiac patients with biopsy-verified celiac disease to 139,473 control subjects, who they matched for age and sex, to find out if patients with celiac disease experienced a different amount of neuropathy than the general population.
The study showed that patients with celiac disease had a 2.5-fold increased risk of later neuropathy and of chronic inflammatory demyelinating neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy, and mononeuritis multiplex. The researchers are not exactly certain why this link exists, but recommend that individuals with neuropathy receive screening for celiac disease since this association is so strong. However, if you have celiac disease, you don’t need to worry too much, since the risk is still very small. Even though neuropathy affects a significantly larger proportion of celiac patients, only about 0.7% of celiac patients will actually develop neuropathy, compared with about 0.3% of the general population.