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A 22-year-old woman arrived at the dentist office complaining of pain and swelling in her lower jaw. She was a successful electrical engineer who appeared to be in good health . . . but dental professionals knew something wasn’t quite right.

Upon further questioning, the young woman reluctantly admitted that she had been eating chalk . . . for several years. What began as eating one small piece of had turned into two packs per day. She admitted that it caused pain in her lower abdomen and hyper salivation, but she also reported that eating chalk gave her a sense of psychological well being.

A review of her medical history revealed that she had been previously taking depression medication, as well as iron and calcium supplements. However, she had discontinued these medications, four years prior, when she began consuming chalk. Based on these findings, the young woman was diagnosed with what is known as pica disorder.

As much as 26% of institutionalized populations suffer from pica—an eating and mental disorder characterized by the recurring consumption of nonnutritive substances for at least one month.

Individuals suffering from pica can be compelled to eat substances as harmless as ice or as deadly as light bulbs. What could possibly drive a person to want to eat light bulbs, you ask?

Well, there are a number of theories.

Causes

Some researchers believe pica is caused by mineral deficiencies that could be the result of a number of underlying factors—anemia, malnutrition, celiac disease, parasites, and even pregnancy.

But there are other causes to consider.

Recent studies have also shown that pica can also be linked to the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as well as schizophrenia. Researchers have also found that extreme stress and traumatic events can be associated with pica disorder.

In children, pica has been associated with child abuse and neglect. In the event that a child is abandoned without proper nutrition, he or she may resort to eating nonnutritive substances found in nearby surroundings. This can lead to the development of improper associations with nonfood substances.

Risks

Even though pica disorder can be hard to detect in some individuals, it poses serious threats that could prove fatal if left untreated.

Substances ingested could be poisonous, contain toxic chemicals, or be ridden with bacteria. Pica can also cause severe damage to the gastrointestinal tract, including obstructions, perforations, and bowel problems. Pica sufferers also run the risk of developing severe dental complications.

In pregnant women, pica disorder poses an even greater risk as it could also put an unborn baby at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals, as well as complications in the digestive process.

Treatment

The good news for those suffering from pica is that full recovery is completely possible. The first line of treatment is to address any underlying mineral deficiencies that may be present. If a deficiency is identified and treated, it may cause the disorder to taper off in matter of days to a month.

In the case that no deficiency is present, behavioral therapy is commonly the second line of treatment. Through this form of therapy, behavioral modifications are aimed at helping the individual learn new appropriate associations with nonnutritive substances and reinforcing healthier eating habits.

In this video, Dr. Anthony Centore speaks with Counselor Stacy Franklin, who speaks about her experience on The Doctors, and also provides more detail on how she helped her client recover from PICA. If you only want audio, visit our Soundcloud page!

If you’d rather listen to the audio version, see below:

What questions do you have about pica disorder? Talk to a counselor with answers today.

Sources:
K.V., Nanjunda Swamy, and Darshan Dewang. “Pica disorder (Geophagia): a case report.”International Journal of Dental Clinics 3.4 (2011): 70+. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 May 2016.

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