Villi are the fingerlike projections of the small intestine where nutrient absorption takes place and are the location of Celiac Disease’s assault on the digestive tract.
Untreated celiac disease leads to blunting (flattening) of the intestinal villi that can be seen when a gastroenterologist performs an endoscopy with biopsy. Despite current controversy over whether or not an endoscopy is necessary for all cases of celiac diagnosis, it is still considered by many experts to be the “gold standard” for officially diagnosing Celiac Disease. I look forward to learning more about this moving target at the International Celiac Disease Symposium being hosted by the University of Chicago in September 2013 (see link).
Although in many cases of Celiac Disease the villous blunting is continuous throughout the small intestine, it has been increasingly recognized that the blunting/flattening can be patchy, and in some cases, localized to one specific portion of the small intestine called the duodenal bulb (see references). Thus, in many cases of Celiac Disease, totally normal areas of intestine alternate with diseased areas. Because of this, experts recommend that gastroenterologists take at least 3 to 4 biopsies, including at least one of the duodenal bulb, when evaluating a patient for Celiac Disease. If not enough biopsies are taken, the diseased portions of the small intestine may be missed (and hence, Celiac Disease not properly recognized). Since starting this blog last fall I have interacted with many people who get terribly ill from eating gluten, have many symptoms of Celiac Disease and have abnormal Celiac antibodies on blood testing, only to be told that they do not have Celiac Disease based on “normal” biopsies. I have also encountered one woman in which no biopsies were taken at all! I strongly suspect that some of these “gluten intolerant” people actually have Celiac Disease.
A group of researchers in Italy (Valitutti, et al.) have recently published the findings of a study in which they mapped the patchiness of villous blunting in 41 pediatric patients with Celiac Disease. 17/41 (41.5%) showed diffuse villous blunting throughout and 24/41 (58.5%) had patchy villous lesions. Of note, one child with Celiac Disease had villous blunting in the jejunum, the second portion of the small intestine, only. In most cases only the duodenum, the first portion of the small intestine, is biopsied, so had this child not had his jejunum biopsied for the study, his celiac changes would have been missed. I find this to be very significant, as he would have likely been labeled as being gluten intolerant, or having “Potential” Celiac Disease as opposed to having actual Celiac Disease….for more on Potential Celiac Disease, please see my previous post from March 2013.
In conclusion, if you are one of the gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive patients out there who had a “normal” biopsy (or are parents of one), I encourage you to obtain your biopsy results and check out how many tissue samples were actually taken from your small intestines. Check also to see if your duodenal bulb was evaluated. You may be surprised by what you find!
Also, if you are going to be attending the Celiac Disease Symposium in Chicago next month I would love to connect with you in person. Shoot me an email at email@example.com, or comment below. We are very fortunate to be having it be held in the U.S.A. this year and it will be a great opportunity to learn and network.
1. Valitutti, F., et al. Mapping histologic patchiness of celiac disease by push enteroscopy. Gastrointestinal endoscopy. E-pub, ahead of print. June 2013.
2. Kurien, M., et al. Duodenal bulb biopsies for diagnosing adult celiac disease: is there an optimal biopsy site? Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. 2012. 75 (6): 1190-6.
3. Ravelli, A., et al. How patchy is patchy villous atrophy?: distribution of histological lesions in the duodenum of children with celiac disease. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2010. 105(9): 2103-10.