Conditions & Treatments

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine because of a sensitivity to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. This hereditary disorder interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food.

Celiac Disease

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine because of a sensitivity to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. This hereditary disorder interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food.

When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. Tiny fingerlike protrusions, called villi, which line the small intestine and enable the absorption of nutrients from food into the bloodstream, are lost. Without these villi, malnutrition occurs, regardless of how much food a person consumes.

Celiac disease is more common in people of European ancestry, Caucasians, and people with type 1 diabetes. More than 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease; however, recent studies have suggested that as many as one in every 133 Americans may have it, and that the disease is underdiagnosed.

What causes celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a genetic disease that runs in families. A person can have the disease and not know it until it is triggered by severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection, or childbirth.

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Celiac disease affects people in different ways. Some persons may develop symptoms as children, whereas others do not experience symptoms until adulthood. Some may have diarrhea and abdominal pains, while others have irritability or depression with the onset of the disease.

While the following are common symptoms of celiac disease, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation

  • Weight loss

  • Recurring abdominal pain and bloating

  • Gas

  • Pale, foul-smelling stool

  • Unexplained anemia

  • Muscle cramps and/or bone pain

  • Pain in the joints

  • Tingling numbness in the legs

  • Delayed growth

  • Fatigue

  • Painful skin rash

  • Missed menstrual periods (which is linked to excessive weight loss)

  • Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel

Sometimes, people with celiac disease are asymptomatic, because the undamaged part of the small intestine is still able to absorb enough nutrients. However, these people are still at risk for complications of the disease.

The symptoms of celiac disease may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is celiac disease diagnosed?

Since symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of other digestive diseases such as Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis, and intestinal infections, it can be difficult to diagnose.

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for celiac disease may include the following:

  • Blood work. (To measure the level of antibodies to gluten.) Researchers have found that persons with celiac disease have higher than normal levels of certain antibodies in their blood. These antibodies by the immune system in response to substances (such as gluten) that the body perceives as threatening.

  • Biopsy. To diagnose celiac disease, the doctor may remove a tiny piece of tissue from the small intestine to check for damage to the villi. During the procedure, the doctor eases a long, thin tube, called an endoscope, through the mouth and stomach into the small intestine. A sample of tissue is then taken using instruments passed through the endoscope. This procedure is considered the "gold standard" for diagnosis of celiac disease.

What is the treatment for celiac disease?

Specific treatment for celiac disease will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for persons with celiac disease. Adhering to a gluten-free diet is a lifetime requirement, as eating any gluten will further damage the intestine.

For most people, eliminating gluten from their diet will stop symptoms, heal intestinal damage that has already occurred, and prevent further damage. Usually, a person will see an improvement in symptoms within days of starting the diet and, within three to six months, the small intestine is usually completely healed, with villi intact and working. For older persons, complete healing may take up to two years.

Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:

Digestive Healthcare Center

  • Weight Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center is a fully integrated center within the Digestive Healthcare Center that supports the spectrum of needs for people of all ages seeking help with obesity and weight loss.
  • Crohn’s and Colitis Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Digestive Healthcare Center’s Crohn’s and Colitis Center is one of the few comprehensive, multidisciplinary programs in New England dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Adult Medicine Imaging
    The Adult Medicine Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers a wide range of diagnostic exams and minimally invasive, image-guided treatments, all provided using leading-edge equipment and interpreted by specialty-trained radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Anesthesia
    The Pediatric Anesthesia team at MassGeneral Hospital for Children specializes in caring for children before, during and after surgery and other procedures.
Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Midlife Women's Health Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Midlife Women’s Health Center brings together experts from more than 15 specialties to improve, promote and advance health care for women at menopause and beyond through research, collaboration and education.

  • Celiac Disease Program
    The Celiac Disease Program at Massachusetts General Hospital brings together a multidisciplinary team of experts that collaborate with patients with celiac disease to co-create health.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Interview with Dr. Alessio Fasano on the Center for Celiac Research — Past & Future

Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research, speaks with Jules Shepard on The Gluten Free Voice Radio Show to discuss the Center’s future and the move to MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

Center for Celiac Research joins MGHfC

After nearly two decades of providing clinical care for patients and conducting innovative research on celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders, the Center for Celiac Research has relocated from Baltimore to Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (MGHfC), as part of the MGHfC’s newly renamed Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center.

Who Has the Guts for Gluten?

New York Times article features Alessio Fasano, MD, of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

Expanding the Spectrum of Gluten-Related Disorders

Transcending the disciplines of microbiology, molecular and cell biology, and physiology, Dr. Alessio Fasano’s research focuses on the mucosal biology of the gut. By focusing on the “cross talk” between enteric pathogens and their hosts, Dr. Fasano’s group has elucidated various organs and cell functions involved in health and disease, including inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.

FDA sets new labeling regulations for gluten-free foods

In a long-awaited step toward accurate gluten-free food labeling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released its definition of “gluten free” to be used by food manufacturers.

Dr. Fasano Featured on MSNBC Talk on Leaky Gut and Painkillers

Overuse of popular NSAIDs is associated with intestinal permeability, which is a condition associated with celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders. Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, discusses the implications of using popular pain medication in relation to gluten-related disorders and exercise.

Clearing Up Confusion About Following a Gluten-Free Diet

In this news segment with Dr. Mallika Marshall from WBZ-TV Boston, Dr. Alessio Fasano, joined by patient Sharone Jelden, talks about diagnosis and treatment for celiac disease and who benefits from following a gluten-free diet.

Studying celiac’s infancy

Maureen Leonard, MD, is looking for 500 newborns at risk for celiac disease. The third-year Mass General Hospital for Children (MGHfC) Pediatric Gastroenterology fellow is working with Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Center for Celiac Research and division chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MGHfC.

FDA Implements Safety Standards for Gluten-Free Labeling

Celiac patients and other consumers trying to sort the gluten-free from the gluten-filled, will have an easier time after August 5, when the FDA standards for gluten-free labeling go into effect.

New guidelines for “gluten-free”

The Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children celebrated a milestone Aug. 5, when new Food and Drug Administration standards for gluten-free labeling went into effect.

Frontiers in Pediatrics Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition 2013

This course is designed to meet one or more of the following Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education competencies: Patient care; Medical knowledge; Practice-based learning and improvement; Interpersonal and communication skills; Professionalism; Systems-based practice

An Informational Evening Program for Patients of all Ages with Celiac Disease

Learn about celiac disease with experts from the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Innovative care at the Digestive Healthcare Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Digestive Healthcare Center

Center for Celiac Research & Treatment

The Center for Celiac Research & Treatment is dedicated to improving the quality of life for patients with celiac disease.