What is peripheral neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is a condition caused by damage to the nerves outside the brain and central nervous system. Peripheral neuropathy can result in a number of uncomfortable or painful symptoms, including numbness, weakness or pain in the hands or feet. While the leading cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes, autoimmune diseases can also cause it. At least 20 million people in the United States suffer from some form of peripheral neuropathy, although this figure is widely presumed to be an underestimate due to a lack of testing for the disease when symptoms occur.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition whereby the ingestion of gluten causes the immune system to mount a response attacking the small intestine. It is a hereditary disease, meaning that genetics play a large role in determining who has this condition. Though celiac disease is treatable, if left untreated, it can lead to serious health complications. At least 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, but this, too, is widely understood to be an under-count, as it is estimated that only 30% of people with celiac disease are properly diagnosed and treated for the condition.
How does celiac cause nerve damage?
While diabetes is the leading cause of peripheral neuropathy, studies show that celiac disease can also be a cause. The anti-gluten antibodies created by the immune system of patients with celiac disease in response to gluten are thought to damage nerves, including the long nerves that extend to the hands and feet. This causes the unpleasant sensations of peripheral neuropathy.
Gluten neuropathy has several notable and uncomfortable symptoms. Gluten neuropathy may cause the following symptoms:
- Weakness in the hands, arms, feet and legs
- Pins-and-needles or sharp stabbing sensations
- Tightness in the affected areas
- Numbness in the hands, arms, feet and legs
Celiac disease can also cause symptoms independent of neuropathy, such as bloating, diarrhea, gastrointestinal discomfort, excessive gas, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
Research has shown that people with gluten neuropathy may benefit from adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. In a 2018 study, 60 patients with gluten neuropathy were studied to see if adherence to a gluten-free diet would help alleviate their symptoms. Patients in this study experienced an 88.7% reduction in pain caused by gluten neuropathy. While half of the patients experienced painful symptoms, those who did not experience pain were more likely to be on a gluten-free diet. While the sample size was small, this indicates that adhering to a strict gluten-free diet may be a promising treatment for patients suffering from celiac-related peripheral neuropathy.
Confirming that gluten sensitivity is a factor in peripheral neuropathy via a blood test is an essential first step. If you suspect you may have celiac disease or that gluten sensitivity may be a factor in causing your peripheral neuropathy, see a medical physician and arrange to be tested for gluten sensitivity.
Patience and attention to detail are very important to successfully engaging with this treatment. Even a small amount of gluten can create enough anti-gluten antibodies to trigger the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. Following a gluten-free diet includes avoiding any foods made from wheat, barley, or rye. Many products may be cross-contaminated with gluten, so care should be taken to ensure everything eaten is certified gluten-free.
Patience is also important. It may take up to a year for a gluten-free diet to have an effect on peripheral neuropathy symptoms.
Celiac disease can be a cause of peripheral neuropathy. For those with gluten neuropathy, following a strict gluten-free diet may slow the progression of symptoms or even alleviate pain over time. Contact your medical provider for a gluten sensitivity test and to discuss a gluten-free lifestyle if you suspect you may have gluten neuropathy.
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- “Peripheral Neuropathy | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke”. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- “What is Celiac Disease? | Celiac Disease Foundation”. Celiac Disease Foundation
- “Nutrients | Quality of Life in Patients with Gluten Neuropathy: A Case-Controlled Study”. MDPI.com