This article appeared in the Summer 2007 edition of Celiac.com's Scott-Free Newsletter.
This question, “how early can you diagnose celiac disease?” is a major concern for both parents and paediatricians. This is because, like many diseases, celiac disease comes on slowly. This means that it can take a long time to make the diagnosis.
Yes, celiac disease can develop very slowly. The symptoms can be subtle. It is a progressive disease. When you are first born, you cannot have celiac disease as you have never been exposed to gluten. However, if you have the right genetic make up (that is you have the celiac gene) and the right environmental circumstances (eating gluten and getting gut inflammation), then celiac disease can develop.
Finding tissue damage
Celiac disease is a condition that is recognised when you get damage to your small bowel tissue. This damage is triggered by gluten.
The standard way to detect this tissue damage is by taking a gut biopsy of the small bowel skin (also called the mucosa). This is done by the technique of upper endoscopy whilst under an anaesthetic. Tiny fragments of gut tissue are snipped off with a pair of forceps. This tissue is then sent to a pathology lab. The lab people (histologists) look down their microscopes at this tissue sample. They are looking for the gut damage called villous atrophy which is characteristic of disease.
Early antibody changes – IgG-gliadin
Importantly, long before the tissue becomes obviously damaged by gluten, your body can begin to react to the gluten in your diet.
An early sign of a gluten immune reaction is that your body produces antibodies to the gluten in your diet. This can be seen in a blood test that looks for an antibody called the IgG-gliadin antibody (also known as anti-gliadin-antibody). Also the IgA-gliadin antibody can develop at this time.
Even in these early stages of gluten reactions (before the development of any gut damage of celiac disease), you or your child can be feeling unwell. Many of the symptoms of celiac disease can be recognized in these early stages. This is before the tissue damage can be seen by the histologist.
The blood test to look for tissue damage is called the tissue transglutaminase antibody (abbreviated as tTG).
Early bowel damage cannot be seen
The next thing to happen is that the tissue in the small bowel gets slightly injured but not enough to be identified by the histologist. However, such damage can be shown by an electron microscope. This early damage can also be detected by the presence of the tTG antibody.
Usually, when the tTG blood test goes up, then this is an indication to do the endoscopy and look for any tissue damage. However, early in the progression of celiac disease, this damage may not show up by conventional methods. This means that the small bowel biopsy and the histology results are good for confirming celiac disease, but they cannot rule it out.
To act or to wait?
In my experience, I have seen a number of children develop celiac disease whilst I have watched and waited. While we doctors wait and see if the gut will become progressively damaged, these children will continue to experience their gut symptoms and they may not be growing so well. We doctors are waiting to make a certain diagnosis of celiac disease. We want to repeat their blood tests and do another endoscopy.
Is this reasonable? Experience has changed my mind. I have come to the conclusion that this is not an appropriate way to deal with these children. Currently, most medical specialists are adamant. They will not make a diagnosis of celiac disease until the histologist can confirm the typical tissue damage.
How long can you wait?
I have given up the “wait and see” approach. I act. I carefully scrutinize the symptoms and the blood test results - the gluten antibodies (IgG-gliadin) and tissue damage antibody (tTG) levels. I may organise an endoscopy test. If these findings suggest the development of celiac disease, then I make a pre-emptive diagnosis of “early celiac disease”, often before the gut gets badly damaged. I give these children a trial of a gluten-free diet – I see what their clinical response is. Pleasingly, most get completely better! If they get better, then they want to stay gluten-free.
The problem is that the diagnosis of celiac disease currently hinges on the abnormal appearance of the small bowel. This damage can take years to develop.
The main argument against my approach is that if you do not have a “definite” diagnosis of celiac disease, then you cannot advise a gluten-free diet for life. In my opinion, the decision to go on a gluten-free diet is not a black and white choice. For children, I give them the option of a gluten-free diet early in their disease. Let them feel well. Let them grow properly. Later, as an adult, they can challenge their diagnosis and have a formal gluten challenge when they understand the issues.
Conclusion – my approach
As you can see, it is difficult to say how early you can diagnose celiac disease. It is my practice to carefully assess children regarding their symptoms, their antibody levels, their genetic status and their endoscopy results (if appropriate).
I do not think it is logical to leave children with significant symptoms waiting for the small bowel damage to eventually occur. Indeed, I think that these long delays in treatment are inhumane. Postponement of a gluten-free diet will cause these children to suffer ongoing symptoms. Worse, they can have growth failure, from which they may not recover.
My approach is to put these children on a gluten-free diet early. I watch and see if thy have a clinical response: if they get better. The evidence shows that you cannot rely entirely on the small bowel biopsy for your diagnosis of celiac disease. These children can have a gluten challenge later in their lives.
The onset of celiac disease is progressive. Why wait until the bitter end before going gluten-free? The onset of celiac disease is progressive. Why wait until the bitter end before going gluten-free? You can find out a lot more from my webpage: www.doctorgluten.com