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Celiac Disease and Multiple Sclerosis

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic condition in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath (which protects nerves) in the brain and spinal cord. This nerve damage interferes with communication between the brain and the body, leading to a wide range of symptoms.

MS symptoms vary greatly from person to person, but can include:

  • Vision problems, such as partial or complete temporary blindness and double vision
  • Tingling or numbness in limbs
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty walking or lack of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Excessive urination
  • Headache
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Electric-shock sensations when moving the neck

Doctors usually use multiple tests in the diagnosis process that also help rule out other potential disorders. Your doctor may perform a physical exam, blood tests, MRIs and/or a spinal tap, in addition to looking at your medical and family history.

There are four different types of MS:

  • Relapsing-remitting (RRMS) is the most common type—about 85% of people with MS have this type upon diagnosis. It is characterized by intense flare-ups that are followed by periods of remission when the disease stops progressing.
  • Primary-progressive (PPMS) steadily worsens without periods of remission.
  • Secondary-progressive (SPMS) is marked by flare-ups that are followed by a worsening of symptoms rather than remission. Without treatment, about half of those diagnosed with RRMS will develop into this type.
  • Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) is one episode of MS. It may lead to the onset of MS or it may never happen again.

Although symptoms can be debilitating during flare-ups, MS is rarely fatal. The life expectancy for someone with MS is somewhat lower than average, but this lifespan discrepancy continues to diminish with the introduction of new treatments and research.

What is the Connection Between Multiple Sclerosis and Celiac Disease?

The data on a direct connection between multiple sclerosis and celiac disease is mixed. One study from 2011 looking at 72 people with MS found celiac disease in 11% of the cohort. This is higher than the around 1% of those in the general population who develop celiac disease. The same study found celiac disease in 32% of the first-degree relatives of those with multiple sclerosis. A separate study found antibodies to gluten in those with MS, but not in controls. 

However, two other studies in Italy and Iran did not find higher rates of celiac disease in those with multiple sclerosis. 

How is Multiple Sclerosis treated?

There is currently no cure for MS, but there are more than a dozen FDA-approved treatments. Treatment options vary depending on the type of MS, but most MS patients rely on a combination of immunosuppressant medications, symptom management and physical therapy.

About one third of patients will start using mobility aids, such as canes or wheelchairs, roughly 20 years after diagnosis.

Learn more about Multiple Sclerosis

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