What Is Pica Eating Disorder? Its Causes Symptoms And Treatment

Pica refers to an eating disorder which is associated with persistent ingestion of substances that are non-nutritive in nature. While this condition can affect to individuals of any age, it is more commonly observed in children below the age of three years.  Pica is usually benign in nature, but in some cases can lead to life threatening consequences.

This article attempts to provide insight into the causes and symptoms of pica and how to treat the condition promptly.

Pica is an eating disorder which is frequently observed among children. While some cultures believe that pica among children in the age group of 18 months to 24 months is common and not pathological, this is one of the most common eating disorder among individuals suffering from developmental disabilities. Pica is characterized by ingestion of a variety of non-food or non-nutritive substances including clay, dirt, stones, hair, feces, lead, gloves, pencil erasers, paper, paint, wood, chalk, needles, cigarette, wire, etc.

In order to confirm the diagnosis of pica, the behavior should be inappropriate as per the developmental level of the individual, or should not be a part of cultural practice or should not occur along with another mental disorder.

In cases were pica is associated with mental retardation or any other form of mental ailment, pica is a secondary diagnosis.

Causes And Symptoms Of Pica Eating Disorder

While the exact cause of pica is not known, there are different theories that are associated with the cause of the condition.

  • Nutritional deficiencies, especially iron and calcium are linked with pica.
  • Stress is considered to be associated with pica.
  • Pica can also be a learned behavior or associated with cultural and familial factors.
  • Non discriminating oral behavior or internal bio-chemic disorder can also lead to pica.

In addition the condition is more frequently observed in individuals belonging to the lower socioeconomic status.

Pica Eating Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms would usually depend upon the nature of the non-food substance that is ingested. Here are some common symptoms associated with the disorder,

  • Lead toxicity can lead to neurological symptoms like lethargy, irritability, headaches, ataxia, in-coordination, seizures, encephalopathy, etc.
  • Parasitic infection can lead to fever, malaise, cough, enchapalitis and even hepatomegaly.
  • Common gastrointestinal symptoms include constipation, ulcers, perforation or intestinal obstruction.
  • Dental abnormalities include tooth loss, non-alignment of teeth, etc.

Pica Eating Disorder Treatment

The treatment of pica focuses on psychological or psychiatric counseling. There are different strategies that are used for the management of pica eating disorder; however some of the more frequently used strategies include the following,

  • Training to help the child differentiate between things that are edible and non-edible items.
  • Placement of self-protection devices should be placed in the mouth to prohibit entry of objects.
  • Sensory reinforcement of positive behavior and antecedent manipulation are some of the other strategies.
  • Efforts to correct the environment and practices of the family to change the behavior may also be tried.

In addition of psychological counseling, ensuring optimum oral health and assessment of nutritional health of the child is imperative. A correct dietary approach and healthy diet practices play a very vital role in the management of pica, especially among children.

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