Could Gluten Be Triggering Your Arthritis?
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance have become increasingly popular diagnoses in the medical community. That may be because more people have the conditions, or because science has helped us learn to recognize them more easily. Either way, researchers are looking at how gluten affects all kinds of conditions, from acne to arthritis.
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What Is Gluten?
Gluten is an amino acid found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grain foods. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. When a person with celiac disease eats food that contains gluten, an immune response is triggered, and the body begins attacking itself.
The immune system makes antibodies, proteins that the body creates to destroy harmful substances. These antibodies attack and destroy the lining of the intestines over time. Ultimately, this can lead to malabsorption issues, malnutrition, and nutrient deficiencies.
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Celiac Disease Mimics Arthritis
Symptoms of arthritis, which include joint pain and stiffness, are also symptoms of the immune response caused by celiac disease. People who are gluten sensitive or who have been diagnosed with celiac disease may experience joint pain, swelling, and stiffness if they eat foods with gluten.
These similar symptoms make celiac disease difficult to diagnose. In fact, it’s commonly confused with other conditions, such as arthritis.
As such, if you tell your doctor you’re experiencing sore joints, they first may look to your bones, not your intestines.
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Arthritis Increases Your Risk for Celiac Disease
You have an increased risk of developing gluten sensitivity or celiac disease if you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). If you’re gluten sensitive or have celiac disease, gluten could cause arthritis symptoms.
Like celiac disease, RA is an autoimmune condition. In other words, your body mistakes normal, healthy parts of itself as foreign. Your body’s immune system attacks and tries to destroy these harmless “invaders.”
In the case of celiac disease, your body responds to gluten by attacking and destroying the villi, which line your small intestine and help your body absorb nutrients.
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How Is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?
To diagnose gluten intolerance or celiac disease, your doctor may conduct several tests, including:
Physical exam. Your doctor will do a complete medical history and physical.
Blood tests. Your doctor will send blood samples to a lab where they’ll be tested for antibodies that show up in the blood of people with celiac disease when they’re exposed to gluten.
Biopsy. Your doctor will perform an upper endoscopy to remove pieces of the lining of your small intestine to check for villi damage.
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What if I Have One Condition or the Other?
Having RA or another type of arthritis increases your risk for developing celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. Likewise, having celiac disease or a gluten intolerance increases your risk for developing RA or another type of arthritis.
People with celiac disease are also likely to have other autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Talk to your doctor about your risk of developing another autoimmune condition if you’ve already been diagnosed with one.
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Be Aware of Your Risk
More than two million Americans have celiac disease, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. More than 21 million Americans have arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Having one increases your risk for having the other.
Celiac disease can develop at any point in life, and symptoms can change depending on your age. If you have a family member with the condition, you’re more likely to eventually be diagnosed with it. RA is more likely to develop between ages 40 and 60, but it can develop at any age.
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Be Smart with Your Food Choices
What you eat can affect how you feel. If you’ve been diagnosed with RA, be aware of how food affects your symptoms. Talk with your doctor about your risk for developing celiac disease.
If you’ve been diagnosed with RA, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of adopting a gluten-free diet. Today, more food companies are making gluten-free alternatives. Plus, most whole foods are naturally gluten-free.
Written by Kimberly Holland
Medically Reviewed on February 4, 2014 by George Krucik, MD, MBA