Anorexia nervosa (anorexia) is an eating disorder which leads to abnormally low body weight, fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight. People make drastic efforts to stay slim, which influence their activities. They restrict the amount of food they eat and often control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas or try to lose weight by exercising. They have an intense fear of gaining weight.
The disorder is similar to bulimia nervosa and the difference is that people with anorexia generally struggle with an abnormally low body weight, while those with bulimia are usually normal to above normal weight. Anorexia is an unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems. It can be very difficult to overcome.
Physical symptoms of anorexia may include:
- Thin appearance,
- Extreme weight loss,
- Abnormal blood counts,
- Dizziness or fainting,
- Bluish discoloration of the fingers,
- Hair that thins, breaks or falls out,
- Soft, downy hair covering the body,
- Absence of menstruation,
- Dry or yellowish skin,
- Intolerance of cold,
- Irregular heart rhythms,
- Low blood pressure,
- Swelling of arms or legs.
The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown and it is probably a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.
Certain risk factors increase the risk of anorexia nervosa, including:
- Young age,
- Being female,
- Family history,
- Weight changes,
- Sports, work and artistic activities,
- Media and society.
Anorexia nervosa can have numerous complications and it can be fatal. Death may occur suddenly — even when someone is not severely underweight.
Other complications of anorexia include:
- Heart problems,
- Bone loss,
- Gastrointestinal problems,
- Electrolyte abnormalities,
- Kidney problems,
- Suicidal feelings.
When somebody is constantly malnourished, every organ in the body can be damaged, including the brain, heart and kidneys and the damage may not be fully recovered, even when the anorexia has been treated successfully.
In addition to physical complications, people with anorexia also commonly have other mental disorders. They may include:
- Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders,
- Personality disorders,
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders,
- Alcohol and substance misuse.
Treating anorexia nervosa may require several types of treatment.
If the patient’s life is in immediate danger, treatment in a hospital emergency room may be necessary. Hospitalization may be on a medical or psychiatric ward.
Frequent monitoring of vital signs, hydration level and electrolytes, as well as related physical conditions are required. In severe cases, people with anorexia may initially require feeding through a tube which is placed in their nose and goes to the stomach (nasogastric tube).