To assess histologic recovery in response to gluten withdrawal in celiac disease, 158 patients seen in our hospital during a 15-year period underwent follow-up small intestine biopsies (SIBs) within 2 years after starting a gluten-free diet; further SIBs were done if villous atrophy was present. A modified Marsh classification was used (IIIA, partial villous atrophy; IIIB, subtotal villous atrophy; IIIC, total villous atrophy).
Of patients with Marsh IIIA, IIIB, or IIIC lesions, histologic remission was seen in 65.0% within 2 years, 85.3% within 5 years, and 89.9% in long-term follow-up. Eleven patients (7.0%) with persisting (partial) villous atrophy had symptoms and signs of malabsorption and were considered to have refractory celiac disease; 5 of them developed an enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma. Children recovered up to 95% within 2 years and 100% in the long-term.
Histologic recovery in celiac disease after starting a gluten-free diet takes time and is incomplete or absent in a substantial subgroup of patients (10.1% villous atrophy after 5 years). Systematic follow-up of patients with celiac disease and the malabsorption syndrome and secondary complications is needed.