What is Pica?
Pica is an eating disorder which results in an individual eating non-nutritive substances for a period of at least one month. Ingestion of these substances does not preclude or inhibit normal eating or appetite.
The types of substances ingested vary depending on age. Younger children typically eat paint, plaster, string, hair, or cloth. Older children tend to eat sand, droppings, insects, leaves, or rocks. Adolescents and adults typically consume clay or dirt.
Pica is often related to developmental disorders and mental retardation. While some individuals have vitamin and mineral deficiencies, this is not the case in every instance. Pica can have serious side effects including heavy metal poisoning, bowel problems, obstructions, intestinal perforation, and infections.
What Are The Causes and Risk Factors of Developing Pica?
The exact cause of pica is unknown. Some believe that culture has to do with the development of pica, while others believe that deficiencies, psychology, or low socio-economic status impact the development of pica. Often malnutrition is diagnosed as a coexisting condition. Hunger is also believed to be a cause of pica.
Similarly, low dopamine levels have been associated with pica, as it is responsible for transmitting impulses from brain cell to brain cell.
Risk factors for developing pica include:
- Family history of mental health issues
- Family issues
- Environmental deprivation
- Brain Damage
- Mental Retardation
- Developmental Disorders
What Are The Symptoms of Pica?
The symptoms of pica are dependent upon what items are ingested and how that item affects the different body systems.
For example, a person who chews on ice will have teeth that are damaged or worn down. Someone who eats clay will exhibit constipation. Bleeding and gastric pain are found in those who eat sand, dirt, and soil. Eating metal objects can cause perforations along the digestive tract, especially in the intestine or bowel. Ingesting lead causes heavy metal poisoning which can result in kidney damage and mental retardation. Finally, eating feces can cause severe infections.
How Is Pica Diagnosed?
Pica is often a childhood disease that tapers off with age. It is not commonly observed in adult individuals who are not disabled. Pica is typically first diagnosed in a hospital after an emergency issue in which a person has had lead poisoning, bowel perforation, or other medical complications and emergencies by non-food objects. Imaging procedures such as x-rays, examination of the gastrointenstinal tract, and endoscopies may be used to diagnose and asses the situation. Typical complications include:
- An undigestible mass of material or objects, typically found in the stomach
- Intestinal obstruction
- Lead poisoning
How Is Pica Treated?
There is not currently a standardized treatment for pica.
Treatments often target behavioral issues and modifying those behaviors, but there is not a typical success rate with such treatments. If the pica is due to nutritional deficiency or pregnancy, it often improves or disappears when there are no other medical reasons for the pica.
Pica often lasts for months and disappears on its own, rather than due to intervention. Occasionally surgery is required to remove an object from the digestive system or to repair damage caused by the ingestion of objects.
Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together
Additional Resources for Pica
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders offers a description of pica, treatment options, and resources.
The National Library of Medicine offers a description of pica, testing options, and treatment for pica.
Medscape Reference provides a scientific look at the causes, presentation, and modifiers related to pica.