Celiac Disease in the December 20, 2012 New England Journal of Medicine

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I am grateful to one of my partners for leaving the December 20th issue of the New England Journal of Medicine in my mailbox with a yellow sticky note stating, “Jess, Thought this might interest you.” She was right, it did interest me, because it includes a review article written by my favorite celiac researcher, Dr. Fasano, from the Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore, MD (which, if you’re interested, will be moving to Boston, MA in 2013).

I love this article as, from the start, it highlights the fact that celiac disease can present in patients in “atypical” ways.

The article begins by describing a 22 year old female who fractures her wrist while playing volleyball. Outside of having fatigue and oral ulcers, she is otherwise healthy. An X-ray of her wrist shows that she has osteopenia (low bone density). Her blood tests show anemia, low iron, and low Vitamin D levels. She had no gastrointestinal symptoms but celiac disease is suspected.

I absolutely love this case presentation, as when I was in medical school (which wasn’t really that long ago) I learned that celiac disease was to be considered in patients with classic gastrointestinal symptoms, such as chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. During my pediatrics residency (which was even more recently), I learned to suspect celiac disease in toddlers with signs of malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, and failure to thrive. Definitely not in young adults with a wrist fracture and low Vitamin D levels…..

I am so excited that hundreds and thousands of physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants will read this article and learn and/or be reminded that patients with celiac disease can have symptoms NOT related to the GI tract. As Dr. Fasano eloquently states in the article, “The clinical features of celiac disease are protean and reflect its systemic nature.” How beautiful is that?

Dr. Fasano also reminds us of the consequences of untreated celiac disease, which include osteoporosis, spleen dysfunction, infertility and recurrent miscarriages, intestinal ulcers, and cancer. This is important for all doctors and patients to know.

He mentions that for many celiacs, despite adhering to a strict gluten free diet, minimal intestinal damage persists. I think that it is important for more to know this, as it highlights the need for additional research into celiac disease and the “leaky gut” phenomenon which it seems more and more of us are experiencing.

The last segment of the article is called “Areas of Uncertainty” and includes a discussion regarding the appropriate timing of introducing gluten to infants. He reports a 50% lower risk of celiac disease in infants who are receiving breast milk when gluten is introduced. I hope to write more about this in the upcoming months.

In conclusion, this article reaffirmed my admiration and gratefulness for Dr. Fasano, and I sincerely hope that its publication leads to increased diagnosis and treatment for the 97% of celiac patients in the U.S. who are walking around undiagnosed.

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