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Celiac Disease and Neurological Conditions


It is estimated that 8-10% of all celiacs are affected by at least one of the many neurological conditions associated with the disease.

Among adults, some of the neurological conditions most frequently experienced are ataxia, depression, epilepsy, migraine headaches, and peripheral neuropathy. Other ‘softer’ neurological disorders, such as ADHD, developmental delay, hypotonia and chronic headaches have also been reported in patients with celiac disease. In fact, research suggests 39.5% of children and adolescents diagnosed with celiac disease report frequent headaches.

While less common, brainstem encephalitis, cerebral vasculitis, dementia, Huntington’s disease, myoclonus, neuromytonia, progressive myoclonic encephalopathy, and stiff-man syndrome have been reported in celiac patients.

In an effort to learn about some of the neurological disorders affecting individuals with celiac disease, NFCA will showcase some of the most frequently reported conditions as part of its ‘Celiac &’ educational series. 

Jump to: Peripheral Neuropathy | Migraine Headaches

Peripheral Neuropathy

What is it? What are the causes?

Peripheral neuropathies cause damage to the body’s peripheral nervous system. The condition is one in which the nerves that carry information to and from the brain and spinal cord to other parts of the body are affected. Peripheral neuropathies are the most common neurologic condition.

Peripheral neuropathies can be caused by a multitude of factors including:

  • Infections and autoimmune disorders
  • Inherited forms of peripheral neuropathy
  • Physical injury (trauma)
  • Systemic diseases
  • Connective tissue disorders and chronic inflammation
  • Cancers and benign tumors
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Kidney disorders
  • Repetitive stress
  • Toxins
  • Vascular damage and blood diseases
  • Vitamin deficiencies, such as B12
  • Underactive thyroid gland

There are more than 100 different types of peripheral neuropathies. They normally are classified by the type of cells, or the process by which cells are affected. 

Peripheral neuropathies are one of the most common neurological conditions experienced by individuals with celiac disease. In fact, it has been reported that 49% of celiac patients seen in clinic experience signs of the condition. Overall, upwards of 20 million Americans are affected by peripheral neuropathies. And, while they can occur at any age, this condition is significantly more common among older adults. 


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can develop quickly or over the course of many years, and vary in severity from mild to severe. Depending on the type of neuropathy and area of the body affected, symptoms can include:

  • Burning sensation
  • Freezing pain
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Pressure or pain
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Tingling or prickling
  • Bowel or bladder problems

Symptoms can occur periodically or sporadically and often are mirrored, meaning experienced in the same place on both sides of the body. Usually, peripheral neuropathies affect distant body parts such as the feet, fingers, face, hands, nose, toes, and tongue.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will likely perform a thorough evaluation to properly diagnose a peripheral neuropathy and determine the area of the nervous system affected. Among some of the diagnostic procedures that might be part of the diagnostic process are:

  • Physical and neurological exam
  • Blood testing
  • Nerve function tests, such as electromyography (EMG)
  • Spinal tap
  • Nerve biopsy
  • Skin biopsy
  • Imaging tests, such as a CT scan

Can it be treated?

The treatment for this condition varies depending on the type and cause of the neuropathy. Oftentimes, neuropathy can improve on its own once the underlying cause has been identified and rectified.

Antidepressants, anti-seizure medication, and pain relievers (both over-the-counter and prescription) have been proven to help manage the pain and acute symptoms associated with peripheral neuropathies. Topical anesthetic lidocaine (commonly referred to as a ‘lidocaine patch’) and capsaicin, a cream containing a substance found in hot peppers, can also provide relief. Mechanical aids like hand or foot braces may also be prescribed to help alleviate nerve compression. Additionally, a treatment called Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), in which gentle electric currents are applied through the skin, may relieve symptoms, as well.


Next: Celiac Disease and Migraine Headaches »

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