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Pica

Pica is an eating disorder characterized by a desire or recurrent compulsion to eat substances that are nonnutritive and not food. These compulsions Compulsions Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the individual is driven to perform in relation to an obsession. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) and ingested substances are inappropriate for age or culture. Pica manifests most commonly during childhood and pregnancy Pregnancy The status during which female mammals carry their developing young (embryos or fetuses) in utero before birth, beginning from fertilization to birth. Pregnancy: Diagnosis, Physiology, and Care and, therefore, carry a high risk for malnutrition Malnutrition Malnutrition is a clinical state caused by an imbalance or deficiency of calories and/or micronutrients and macronutrients. The 2 main manifestations of acute severe malnutrition are marasmus (total caloric insufficiency) and kwashiorkor (protein malnutrition with characteristic edema). Malnutrition in children in resource-limited countries and anemia Anemia Anemia is a condition in which individuals have low Hb levels, which can arise from various causes. Anemia is accompanied by a reduced number of RBCs and may manifest with fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, and weakness. Subtypes are classified by the size of RBCs, chronicity, and etiology. Anemia: Overview and Types. Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship usually present with nutritional deficiencies or complications from ingesting nonfood substances. Management aims are to stabilize patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship medically and then provide appropriate behavioral therapy as a 1st-line option.

Last updated: Nov 17, 2022

Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

Overview

Definition

Pica is an eating disorder of unclear etiology characterized by a desire or compulsion to eat substances that are not food in a context that is not developmentally, socially, or culturally appropriate. 

The specific substances that are craved vary:

  • Geophagia (earth ingestion):
    • Common
    • Leads to constipation Constipation Constipation is common and may be due to a variety of causes. Constipation is generally defined as bowel movement frequency < 3 times per week. Patients who are constipated often strain to pass hard stools. The condition is classified as primary (also known as idiopathic or functional constipation) or secondary, and as acute or chronic. Constipation, hypokalemia Hypokalemia Hypokalemia is defined as plasma potassium (K+) concentration < 3.5 mEq/L. Homeostatic mechanisms maintain plasma concentration between 3.5-5.2 mEq/L despite marked variation in dietary intake. Hypokalemia can be due to renal losses, GI losses, transcellular shifts, or poor dietary intake. Hypokalemia with myopathy Myopathy Dermatomyositis, and nutritional deficiencies
    • Can be a source of parasites
    • Lead poisoning Lead poisoning Poisoning that results from chronic or acute ingestion, injection, inhalation, or skin absorption of lead or lead compounds. Metal Poisoning (Lead, Arsenic, Iron) can be a serious complication with clay ingestion.
  • Pagophagia (ice ingestion):
    • Associated with iron Iron A metallic element with atomic symbol fe, atomic number 26, and atomic weight 55. 85. It is an essential constituent of hemoglobins; cytochromes; and iron-binding proteins. It plays a role in cellular redox reactions and in the transport of oxygen. Trace Elements deficiency
    • Tooth decay and sensitivity
  • Amylophagia (excessive starch ingestion):
    • Associated with iron Iron A metallic element with atomic symbol fe, atomic number 26, and atomic weight 55. 85. It is an essential constituent of hemoglobins; cytochromes; and iron-binding proteins. It plays a role in cellular redox reactions and in the transport of oxygen. Trace Elements deficiency
    • Leads to high blood sugar and obesity Obesity Obesity is a condition associated with excess body weight, specifically with the deposition of excessive adipose tissue. Obesity is considered a global epidemic. Major influences come from the western diet and sedentary lifestyles, but the exact mechanisms likely include a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Obesity

Epidemiology

  • Incidence Incidence The number of new cases of a given disease during a given period in a specified population. It also is used for the rate at which new events occur in a defined population. It is differentiated from prevalence, which refers to all cases in the population at a given time. Measures of Disease Frequency is challenging to estimate:
    • Diverse clinical definitions
    • Underreported 
  • Highest prevalence Prevalence The total number of cases of a given disease in a specified population at a designated time. It is differentiated from incidence, which refers to the number of new cases in the population at a given time. Measures of Disease Frequency seen in:
    • Children
    • Pregnant women
  • Boys and girls equally affected
  • Risk factors:
    • Nutritional deficiency
      • Iron Iron A metallic element with atomic symbol fe, atomic number 26, and atomic weight 55. 85. It is an essential constituent of hemoglobins; cytochromes; and iron-binding proteins. It plays a role in cellular redox reactions and in the transport of oxygen. Trace Elements deficiency
      • Zinc Zinc A metallic element of atomic number 30 and atomic weight 65. 38. It is a necessary trace element in the diet, forming an essential part of many enzymes, and playing an important role in protein synthesis and in cell division. Zinc deficiency is associated with anemia, short stature, hypogonadism, impaired wound healing, and geophagia. It is known by the symbol zn. Trace Elements deficiency
    • Pregnancy Pregnancy The status during which female mammals carry their developing young (embryos or fetuses) in utero before birth, beginning from fertilization to birth. Pregnancy: Diagnosis, Physiology, and Care
    • Stress
    • Low socioeconomic status
    • Intellectual disability Disability Determination of the degree of a physical, mental, or emotional handicap. The diagnosis is applied to legal qualification for benefits and income under disability insurance and to eligibility for social security and workman’s compensation benefits. ABCDE Assessment
    • Child neglect Child neglect Malnutrition in children in resource-limited countries
    • Underlying mental health disorder:
      • Schizophrenia Schizophrenia Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder characterized by the presence of psychotic symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations. The signs and symptoms of schizophrenia are traditionally separated into 2 groups: positive (delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech or behavior) and negative (flat affect, avolition, anhedonia, poor attention, and alogia). Schizophrenia
      • OCD OCD Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition characterized by obsessions (recurring and intrusive thoughts, urges, or images) and/or compulsions (repetitive actions the person is compelled to perform) that are time-consuming and associated with functional impairment. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)
      • Trichotillomania Trichotillomania Trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder (HPD)) is defined as repetitive pulling of one’s hair resulting in hair loss that may be visible to others. This disorder is classified under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, as there is tension prior to the act that is relieved after the hair-pulling. Trichotillomania

Clinical Presentation and Diagnosis

Clinical presentation

  • Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship self-present or are brought in by caregivers when abnormal eating habit is noticed.
  • May also present with complications:
    • Toxicity Toxicity Dosage Calculation and poisoning (e.g., lead poisoning Lead poisoning Poisoning that results from chronic or acute ingestion, injection, inhalation, or skin absorption of lead or lead compounds. Metal Poisoning (Lead, Arsenic, Iron) if ingesting paints or clay)
    • Hypokalemia Hypokalemia Hypokalemia is defined as plasma potassium (K+) concentration < 3.5 mEq/L. Homeostatic mechanisms maintain plasma concentration between 3.5-5.2 mEq/L despite marked variation in dietary intake. Hypokalemia can be due to renal losses, GI losses, transcellular shifts, or poor dietary intake. Hypokalemia (clay ingestion)
    • GI obstruction (bezoar ingestion)
    • Parasitic infection (sand, mud, clay ingestion)
  • Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship do not have self-harm Self-harm Psychiatric Assessment/suicidal intention; distinguish from intentional intoxication/overdose.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of pica is clinical, based on observed patterns of behavior:

  • Recurrent episodes of eating nonfood, nonnutritional substances (e.g., chalk, clay, cloth, coal, dirt, gum, hair, metal, paint, paper, pebbles, soap, string, or wool)
  • Eating behavior is inappropriate to the patient’s developmental level and is not culturally supported or socially normal.
  • Lasts at least 1 month
  • Exclude autism spectrum disorder Autism spectrum disorder Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by poor social skills, restricted interests/social interactions, and repetitive/stereotyped behaviors. The condition is termed a “spectrum” because of the wide variability in the severity of symptoms exhibited. Autism Spectrum Disorder, developmental delay, and intellectual disability Disability Determination of the degree of a physical, mental, or emotional handicap. The diagnosis is applied to legal qualification for benefits and income under disability insurance and to eligibility for social security and workman’s compensation benefits. ABCDE Assessment.

Further testing should be directed by etiology, symptomatology Symptomatology Scarlet Fever, and ingested substances:

  • Blood cell counts and iron Iron A metallic element with atomic symbol fe, atomic number 26, and atomic weight 55. 85. It is an essential constituent of hemoglobins; cytochromes; and iron-binding proteins. It plays a role in cellular redox reactions and in the transport of oxygen. Trace Elements studies to diagnose anemia Anemia Anemia is a condition in which individuals have low Hb levels, which can arise from various causes. Anemia is accompanied by a reduced number of RBCs and may manifest with fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, and weakness. Subtypes are classified by the size of RBCs, chronicity, and etiology. Anemia: Overview and Types
  • Lead testing if patient ingests paint
  • Basic metabolic panel Basic Metabolic Panel Primary vs Secondary Headaches to identify hypokalemia Hypokalemia Hypokalemia is defined as plasma potassium (K+) concentration < 3.5 mEq/L. Homeostatic mechanisms maintain plasma concentration between 3.5-5.2 mEq/L despite marked variation in dietary intake. Hypokalemia can be due to renal losses, GI losses, transcellular shifts, or poor dietary intake. Hypokalemia in clay ingestion 
  • Testing for parasitic infections Infections Invasion of the host organism by microorganisms or their toxins or by parasites that can cause pathological conditions or diseases. Chronic Granulomatous Disease that may occur with ingesting soil 
  • Abdominal X-rays X-rays X-rays are high-energy particles of electromagnetic radiation used in the medical field for the generation of anatomical images. X-rays are projected through the body of a patient and onto a film, and this technique is called conventional or projectional radiography. X-rays to identify intestinal obstruction by bezoars Bezoars Concretions of swallowed hair, fruit or vegetable fibers, or similar substances found in the alimentary canal. Trichotillomania
Geophagia

Abdominal X-ray of a patient with pica:
Patients with pica have a compulsion to ingest nonnutritive material. Some patients fixate on eating earth, which can cause bowel blockage. Abdominal X-rays can help identify the ingested foreign substance (bright material seen in the pelvis of the patient).

Image: “Silica in the soil that has been eaten by a woman” by SuSanA Secretariat. License: CC BY 2.0

Management

Prevention

  • Identifying at-risk individuals
  • Removing patient from area of exposure 
  • Providing food substances with similar texture Texture Dermatologic Examination and color to replace ingested nonfood material

Medical management

  • Assess and treat underlying nutritional deficiencies:
    • Iron Iron A metallic element with atomic symbol fe, atomic number 26, and atomic weight 55. 85. It is an essential constituent of hemoglobins; cytochromes; and iron-binding proteins. It plays a role in cellular redox reactions and in the transport of oxygen. Trace Elements deficiency anemia Anemia Anemia is a condition in which individuals have low Hb levels, which can arise from various causes. Anemia is accompanied by a reduced number of RBCs and may manifest with fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, and weakness. Subtypes are classified by the size of RBCs, chronicity, and etiology. Anemia: Overview and Types
    • Zinc Zinc A metallic element of atomic number 30 and atomic weight 65. 38. It is a necessary trace element in the diet, forming an essential part of many enzymes, and playing an important role in protein synthesis and in cell division. Zinc deficiency is associated with anemia, short stature, hypogonadism, impaired wound healing, and geophagia. It is known by the symbol zn. Trace Elements
    • Potassium Potassium An element in the alkali group of metals with an atomic symbol k, atomic number 19, and atomic weight 39. 10. It is the chief cation in the intracellular fluid of muscle and other cells. Potassium ion is a strong electrolyte that plays a significant role in the regulation of fluid volume and maintenance of the water-electrolyte balance. Hyperkalemia
  • Psychotherapy Psychotherapy Psychotherapy is interpersonal treatment based on the understanding of psychological principles and mechanisms of mental disease. The treatment approach is often individualized, depending on the psychiatric condition(s) or circumstance. Psychotherapy:
  • Treat complications:

Differential Diagnosis

Pica is classified as an eating disorder and can have features in common with other such disorders.

  • Anorexia Anorexia The lack or loss of appetite accompanied by an aversion to food and the inability to eat. It is the defining characteristic of the disorder anorexia nervosa. Anorexia Nervosa nervosa: eating disorder characterized by intense fear of gaining weight, restrictive dietary habits, and distorted body image: Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship affected by anorexia Anorexia The lack or loss of appetite accompanied by an aversion to food and the inability to eat. It is the defining characteristic of the disorder anorexia nervosa. Anorexia Nervosa nervosa are usually underweight and are reluctant to seek medical help. Treatment involves CBT with antidepressant Antidepressant Antidepressants encompass several drug classes and are used to treat individuals with depression, anxiety, and psychiatric conditions, as well as those with chronic pain and symptoms of menopause. Antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and many other drugs in a class of their own. Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and Similar Antidepressants medication as an adjunct. Extreme cases may require hospitalization Hospitalization The confinement of a patient in a hospital. Delirium.
  • Bulimia Bulimia Eating an excess amount of food in a short period of time, as seen in the disorder of bulimia nervosa. It is caused by an abnormal craving for food, or insatiable hunger also known as ‘ox hunger’. Bulimia Nervosa nervosa: anxiety-driven eating disorder defined by recurrent episodic binge eating Binge eating Binge eating is defined as consuming an amount of food in a specified amount of time (e.g., 1 hour) that greatly exceeds what most people would consume in that same amount of time. Binge Eating Disorder paired with recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior Compensatory behavior Binge Eating Disorder (inducing vomiting Vomiting The forcible expulsion of the contents of the stomach through the mouth. Hypokalemia, laxative Laxative Agents that produce a soft formed stool, and relax and loosen the bowels, typically used over a protracted period, to relieve constipation. Hypokalemia abuse, and excessive exercising): The BMI BMI An indicator of body density as determined by the relationship of body weight to body height. Bmi=weight (kg)/height squared (m2). Bmi correlates with body fat (adipose tissue). Their relationship varies with age and gender. For adults, bmi falls into these categories: below 18. 5 (underweight); 18. 5-24. 9 (normal); 25. 0-29. 9 (overweight); 30. 0 and above (obese). Obesity of patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship with this condition may be normal or even elevated. Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship with bulimia Bulimia Eating an excess amount of food in a short period of time, as seen in the disorder of bulimia nervosa. It is caused by an abnormal craving for food, or insatiable hunger also known as ‘ox hunger’. Bulimia Nervosa nervosa are more likely to seek help. Treatment involves a combination of CBT and selective serotonin Serotonin A biochemical messenger and regulator, synthesized from the essential amino acid l-tryptophan. In humans it is found primarily in the central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and blood platelets. Serotonin mediates several important physiological functions including neurotransmission, gastrointestinal motility, hemostasis, and cardiovascular integrity. Receptors and Neurotransmitters of the CNS reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication.
  • Binge-eating disorder: eating disorder marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating Binge eating Binge eating is defined as consuming an amount of food in a specified amount of time (e.g., 1 hour) that greatly exceeds what most people would consume in that same amount of time. Binge Eating Disorder without inappropriate compensatory behavior Compensatory behavior Binge Eating Disorder: Binge-eating disorder results in fluctuating body weight. Episodes occur at least weekly for 3 months. Treatment consists of a combination of psychotherapy Psychotherapy Psychotherapy is interpersonal treatment based on the understanding of psychological principles and mechanisms of mental disease. The treatment approach is often individualized, depending on the psychiatric condition(s) or circumstance. Psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.
  • Rumination disorder Rumination Disorder Rumination disorder is a behavioral disorder marked by repeated regurgitation of food, which may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out. This condition is not due to a medical disorder (GERD or pyloric stenosis) or other eating disorders (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa). Rumination Disorder: repeated regurgitation Regurgitation Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) of food (which may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out) that is not due to a general medical condition (e.g., GERD GERD Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus. This backwash (acid reflux) can irritate the lining of the esophagus, causing symptoms such as retrosternal burning pain (heartburn). Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)): Treatment involves multiple CBT techniques, including biofeedback Biofeedback The therapy technique of providing the status of one’s own autonomic nervous system function (e.g., skin temperature, heartbeats, brain waves) as visual or auditory feedback in order to self-control related conditions (e.g., hypertension, migraine headaches). Psychotherapy psychotherapy Psychotherapy Psychotherapy is interpersonal treatment based on the understanding of psychological principles and mechanisms of mental disease. The treatment approach is often individualized, depending on the psychiatric condition(s) or circumstance. Psychotherapy as well as medication when appropriate (e.g., proton pump Pump ACES and RUSH: Resuscitation Ultrasound Protocols inhibitors).

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. McNaughten B, Bourke T, Thompson A. (2017). Fifteen-minute consultation: the child with pica. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28487433/
  3. Call NA, Simmons CA, Mevers JE, Alvarez JP. (2015). Clinical outcomes of behavioral treatments for pica in children with developmental disabilities. J Autism Dev Disord. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25636679/

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