People with this disorder have the insatiable desire to eat things that have no nutritional value, but we’re not talking candy or chips. No, people that suffer from pica have the desire to eat non-food substances such as wood or paint, and this desire continues for months on end. The disorder is characterized into several subtypes: coprophagy, geophagy, hyalophagia, tricophagia, or urophagia.
These subtypes are distinguished by what patients that suffer from specifically crave. Individuals with geophagy have the desire to consume soil, clay, or dirt. Hyalophagia is characterized by the consumption of grass, while individuals who consume hair suffer from tricophagia. The two final subtypes, coprophagy and urophagia, are the most disturbing; they are the craving for feces and urine, respectively. There are many more subtypes, each characterized by a specific object that the individual can’t get enough of.
There are many complications that can result from the consumption of this wide range of substances. Lead poisoning is a major one, since people often consume paint or paint-soaked plaster. Those that consume hair can suffer from intestinal obstructions as a result of hairballs that stick in the digestive tract. Toxocara or toxoplasma, infections caused by parasites or worms that settle in the body, result from the consumption of feces and dirt. So, although pica sounds relatively harmless, the disorder can have serious repercussions.
There has been very little research done on the causes of this disorder, but what little has been completed suggests that the disorder is a specific appetite caused by mineral deficiencies (e.g. iron deficiencies). These deficiencies can be the result of celiac disease or hookworm infections, and the substance that is eaten by the individual often contains the mineral that they are lacking. Recently, pica has been tied to OCD, and there has been a move to consider obsessive-compulsive disorder as a part of the etiology of pica. More broadly speaking, sensory, physiological, cultural, and psychosocial perspectives have been considered to explain the causation of pic.
There is no one test that will determine whether or not an individual suffers from pica. Lower than normal nutrient levels and poor nutrition are clear indicators of the disease, however, and blood levels can be tested for iron and zinc levels. Hemoglobin can be tested for anemia, and lead levels should be checked in children that have consumed pain recently or objects that have been covered in lead-paint dust. If someone has been eating contaminated soil or animal waste, the doctor should most certainly test for infection.
Determining symptoms can include:
- Persistent eating of these nonnutritive substances for more than a month
- Their symptoms do not meet the criteria for having autism, schizophrenia, or Kleine-Levin Syndrome
- The eating is not culturally sanctioned, and occurs exclusively during the course of another mental disorder, such as disability, pervasive developmental disorder, or schizophrenia, and said mental disorder must be severe enough to require treatment from a medical professional
Depending on the suspected cause for the disease, treatment can vary from case to case, and can emphasize psychosocial, environmental, and family-guidance approaches. It can be treated through iron supplements and dietary changes. Initial approaches often include screening for and treating any mineral deficiencies, along with any other comorbid conditions. Therapy and medications have been successfully used in cases that have psychological causes, but previous reports caution against the use of medication until a specific cause has been determined.