Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Though most people have no trouble with digesting this protein, many people have a gluten sensitivity or a disease called celiac sprue.
People who have issues digesting gluten may develop digestive problems and cause damage to the small intestine when they eat something containing gluten.
In some cases, the body’s reaction to gluten can become quite severe. In these cases, the body starts to attack the central nervous system, which may cause gluten ataxia.
What happens in gluten ataxia?
In extreme cases, the body’s reaction to gluten is so severe that the body starts to attack the central nervous system.
When somebody has gluten ataxia, the antibodies that are released when they digest gluten attack part of the brain called the cerebellum.
The cerebellum is the part of the brain located in the back of the head above the neck. The cerebellum is responsible for movement and has a direct impact on activities such as:
The symptoms of gluten ataxia start off mild and gradually become worse over time. When left untreated, the condition could lead to permanent damage.
There is also evidence that people who suffer from gluten ataxia will show signs of cerebellar atrophy. Cerebellar atrophy is the shrinkage of the cerebellum.
Unfortunately, gluten ataxia is a relatively new discovery and not yet widely accepted by doctors and other medical professionals. This can make a diagnosis and proper treatment difficult to obtain.
However, there are groups of researchers dedicated to spreading information about this rare condition.
As gluten ataxia progresses, a person may experience dizziness and have problems with balance when standing.
Gluten ataxia is a progressive condition, which means that symptoms may start off mild and almost unnoticed, and gradually progress to being debilitating.
The symptoms of gluten ataxia are similar to symptoms of other ataxia conditions, which can make it tricky to get an accurate diagnosis.
Some of the more typical symptoms a person may experience include:
- problems with general movements, such as walking or arm control
- issues with coordination
- loss of precise movement skills, such as the ability to write or button a shirt
- difficulty talking
- vision issues
- symptoms of nerve damage in the hands, feet, and limbs
Although gluten ataxia is a gluten sensitivity issue, digestive issues are not typically a symptom.
Progression over time
Gluten ataxia is a slowly progressive disease. It is very similar to other types of ataxia that also affect the cerebellum. This can make it difficult to diagnose or recognize as a specific, treatable condition.
It is not uncommon for a person’s general movement skills to be affected first, which is typically demonstrated by trouble walking. A person is more likely to:
- have an abnormal way of walking
As the disease progresses, a person may start to notice issues with:
- balance when standing
- difficulty with speech
- writing or getting dressed
When a person first experiences these symptoms, it is likely that they can reverse the progression through eliminating gluten from their diet.
If the condition is not stopped, however, the worsening symptoms can become permanent.
How many people are affected?
Gluten ataxia is still not a fully recognized condition. This means that the actual number of cases is difficult to determine.
Some researchers have estimated that potentially up to 41 percent of all people with ataxia of unknown origin may have gluten ataxia.
Other studies have indicated much lower numbers. One review of studies indicated a prevalence of roughly 23 percent in patients with unexplained ataxia.
Treatment is relatively simple and involves total removal of all gluten from a person’s diet.
All gluten, including trace amounts of it, need to be removed entirely from the diet. Even small amounts can cause the gluten ataxia’s progression to continue.
The symptoms can take some time to improve, even after the removal of gluten from the diet. It is essential that a person checks the ingredients on all food products to avoid accidentally consuming gluten.
Not all doctors agree that the removal of gluten from the diet will improve symptoms of unexplained ataxia. As such, they may not recommend or even mention the elimination of gluten from a person’s diet as a potential cure for gluten ataxia.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that people who remove gluten from their diet will see improvements in their ataxia symptoms.
It is unlikely that a person will get a specific diagnosis of gluten ataxia. Many doctors will not even test for it because of other more recognized forms of ataxia.
The methods used to diagnose the condition are also relatively new. Researchers recommend using techniques that doctors use to diagnose celiac disease, such as blood tests. A positive test result indicates that a person should start a strict gluten-free diet.
If symptoms improve, there is a strong likelihood that the person has gluten ataxia. The person should stick to the strict gluten-free diet for the remainder of their life to stop the condition from recurring.
To treat gluten ataxia, a person must remove all gluten from their diet.
A person diagnosed with gluten ataxia will notice their symptoms getting worse over time.
Without treatment, the central nervous system may become severely damaged, which will result in the symptoms becoming permanent.
Treatment involves a strict removal of gluten from a person’s diet. The elimination of gluten will eventually cause the symptoms to clear up.
Since gluten ataxia is a relatively obscure condition, a person’s doctor may not have heard of or recognize it.
Anyone who suspects that they have gluten ataxia may want to try a gluten-free diet, particularly if their symptoms have no other explanation. However, always check with a doctor that it is safe to start such a diet first.