Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine, which affects around 1 in 100 people worldwide. If untreated, it can lead to serious health problems. Now, researchers have found an increased prevalence of the disease among children with irritable bowel syndrome.

The researchers, who publish their results in JAMA Pediatrics, say their findings suggest all children with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) should be screened for celiac disease.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, around 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed and at risk for long-term health obstacles due to celiac disease.

The condition is hereditary, and individuals with a parent, child or sibling with celiac disease have a 1 in 10 risk of developing it. If left untreated, it can lead to type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, dermatitis herpetiformis, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage, neurological conditions and intestinal cancer.

Though previous studies have shown an increased prevalence of celiac disease in adult patients with IBS, the researchers from this latest study say this link has not been widely proven in children.

To conduct their study, the researchers - led by Dr. Fernanda Cristofori of the University of Bari in Italy - used a cohort study conducted between 2006 and 2012 in a referral center for the diagnosis and follow-up of gastrointestinal disorders.

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Prevalence of celiac disease in children with IBS is four times higher than in the general child population.

There were 992 children in total who were involved in the study who had abdominal pain-related disorders, including IBS, functional dyspepsia (indigestion) and functional abdominal pain.

Cost implications linked to screening

After performing blood tests on all the children and classifying their conditions, the researchers found that 270 of them had IBS, 201 had functional dyspepsia, 311 had functional abdominal pain and 210 were taken out of the study because they had some other disorder not related to abdominal pain.

Results showed that 4.4% of the children with IBS tested positive for celiac disease, compared with only 1% of those with functional dyspepsia and 0.3% of those with functional abdominal pain.

And the researchers say the prevalence of celiac disease among children with IBS is four times higher than the general child population.

In the conclusion to their study, the team writes:

"The identification of IBS as a high-risk condition for celiac disease might be of help in pediatric primary care because it might have become routine to test for celiac disease indiscriminately in all children with recurrent abdominal pain, although our finding suggests that the screening should be extended only to those with IBS."

They add that this new screening program could have important cost implications, given that in children with functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDS), "screening tests are common, costs are substantial and the yield is minimal."

In a linked editorial to the study, Dr. James E. Squires and colleagues, from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, agree that selective screening for children with IBS is justified.

"However," they write, "the lines distinguishing IBS from alternative FGIDS are often blurred. It is within this reality that pediatric health care providers should examine the evidence, evaluate the patient and family, weigh the likelihood of a false positive test result and make the decision that they believe will benefit the patient most."

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that claimed to unearth a genetic basis for IBS. The researchers said a drug called mexiletine restores function of a sodium channel found in the gastrointestinal smooth muscle and pacemaker cells, providing hope for potential treatment.