Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes an eating disorder characterized by low body weight and body image distortion. Individuals with anorexia often control body weight by voluntary starvation, purging, vomiting, excessive exercise, or other weight control measures, such as diet pills or diuretic drugs.
Anorexia nervosa primarily affects young adolescent girls in the Western world and has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric condition, with approximately 10% of people diagnosed with the condition eventually dying due to related factors.
The suicide rate of people with anorexia is also higher than that of the general population and is thought to be the major cause of death for those with this condition.
Anorexia nervosa is a complex condition, involving psychological, neurobiological, physiological and sociological components.
A person who is suffering from anorexia is referred to as anorexic. Anorexia nervosa is frequently shortened to anorexia in both the media and scientific literature. This is technically incorrect, as strictly speaking anorexia refers to the medical symptom of reduced appetite.
It is clear that there is no single cause for anorexia and that it stems from a mixture of social, psychological and biological factors. Current research is commonly focused on explaining existing factors and uncovering new causes. However, there is considerable debate over how much each of the known causes contributes to the development of anorexia. In particular, the contribution of perceived media pressure on women to be thin has been especially contentious.
Anorexia can be difficult to treat. A recent review suggested that less than one-half recover fully, one-third improve, and 20% remain chronically ill.
The first line of treatment for anorexia is usually focused on immediate weight gain, especially with those who have particularly serious conditions that require hospitalization. In particularly serious cases, this may be done under as an involuntary hospital treatment under mental health law, where such legislation exists. In the majority of cases, however, people with anorexia are treated as outpatients, with input from physicians, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals.
A recent clinical review has suggested that psychotherapy is an effective form of treatment and can lead to restoration of weight and improved psychological and social functioning when compared to simple support or education programs. However, this review also noted that there are only a small number of randomized controlled trials on which to base this recommendation. No specific type of psychotherapy seems to show any overall advantage when compared to other types.
Family therapy has also been found to be an effective treatment for adolescents with anorexia and in particular, a method developed at the Maudsley Hospital is widely used and found to maintain improvement over time.
It is important to note that many recovering underweight people (who are more or less forced against their will into recovery by angry parents or other relatives) often harbour a hateful dislike for those who they feel are robbing them of their treasured emaciation. Often when well-meaning friends or relatives compliment the recoveree on how much healthier they look, the recoverees mind replaces healthy with fat.
Drug treatments, such as SSRI or other antidepressant medication, have not found to be generally effective for either treating anorexia or preventing relapse although there is a lack of adequate research in this area. It is common, however, for antidepressants to be prescribed, often with the intent of trying to treat the associated anxiety and depression.
Disclaimer – The information presented here should not be interpreted as medical advice. If you need more information about anorexia, please consult a qualified physician for the best treatment options available.