OBJECTIVES: Nonresponse or relapse of symptoms is common in patients with celiac disease treated with gluten free diet. Refractory sprue (RS) is defined as initial or subsequent failure of a strict gluten-free diet to restore normal intestinal architecture and function in patients who have celiac-like enteropathy. The aims of this study were: 1) to identify causes of persistent symptoms in patients referred with presumed diagnosis of nonresponsive celiac disease (NCD); and 2) to characterize patients with true RS. METHODS: Patients were identified who had been systematically evaluated for NCD between January 1997, and May 2001. Patient records and small bowel biopsy results were reviewed. RESULTS: A total of 55 patients were referred with a presumed diagnosis of NCD. Six did not have celiac disease and had other diseases responsible for their symptoms. Diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss were the most common reasons for evaluation in cases of NCD, whereas weight loss, steatorrhea, and diarrhea were the most common presenting features of RS (nine patients). Of the 49 patients with celiac disease, 25 were identified as having gluten contamination. Additional diagnoses accounting for persistent symptoms included: pancreatic insufficiency, irritable bowel syndrome, bacterial overgrowth, lymphocytic colitis, collagenous colitis, ulcerative jejunitis, T-cell lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, fructose intolerance, protein losing enteropathy, cavitating lymphadenopathy syndrome, and tropical sprue. CONCLUSIONS: Based on this study, we conclude the following: 1) gluten contamination is the leading reason for NCD; 2) of NCD cases, 18% are due to RS; and 3) alternative diseases or those coexistent with celiac disease and gluten contamination should be ruled out before a diagnosis of RS is made.
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