What Is Inpatient Eating Disorder Treatment? 5 Things to Know

March 12, 2023

An eating disorder is a dangerous and potentially fatal mental health condition that should be treated by medical professionals. For those struggling with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, it’s important to know what treatment programs are available and to understand what those treatments may entail. Individuals who require a more intensive treatment program may opt for inpatient treatment. This article will answer some common questions about inpatient treatment and help you understand what to expect.

What Is Inpatient Treatment?

There are various levels of care when discussing eating disorder treatment. Inpatient eating disorder treatment takes place in a hospital-based program  where the patient is receiving intensive care around the clock. The care team provides dedicated supervision and high levels of patient support during an inpatient program. Inpatient treatment can vary in length of stay based on the needs of the patient, but this form of treatment often lasts a few weeks to a few months depending on severity of the eating disorder. Inpatient eating disorder treatment may be appropriate when other less-intensive treatments have been ineffective, if the severity of the eating disorder requires increased care, or if the patient is at risk of harming themselves or others. Many inpatient programs provide both medical and psychiatric care essential to the patient’s recovery. Other less-intensive treatment types include outpatient treatment, residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, and partial hospitalization program. Visit the National Alliance for Eating Disorders to learn more about other levels of care.

man in distress on couch

When Is Inpatient Treatment Considered?

Inpatient treatment can be pursued when other less-intensive forms of treatment have been ineffective in treating the patient’s eating disorder. Many people begin their recovery with eating disorder treatment programs such as outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient program (IOP), or partial hospitalization (PHP). When a patient requires more medical and psychiatric attention than these treatments provide, it may be time to consider inpatient treatment. 

If a patient has unstable heart rate or blood pressure, atypical vital signs, fainting, or other acute symptoms of an eating disorder, inpatient treatment is imperative. Severe weight loss, malnourishment, and changes in menstruation are all longer-term symptoms that may indicate that inpatient treatment should be considered. Furthermore, if someone experiencing an eating disorder is at risk of harming themselves or others, it is critical to seek inpatient treatment. 

Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. These co-occurrences can compound the harmful effects of an eating disorder. In these situations, inpatient treatment can be beneficial to treating both the patient’s physical and psychological symptoms with 24-hour intensive care and monitoring. 

The best time to consider any care for an eating disorder is sooner rather than later. If you or someone you love is experiencing an eating disorder, it is important to reach out to a care team as soon as possible. Treatment plans can look different for each patient and inpatient treatment may be an important part of recovery.

What Does an Inpatient Treatment Team Look Like? 

An inpatient treatment program provides round-the-clock care to patients. A typical care team at an inpatient treatment facility will include physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, and dietitians. Many inpatient programs also have additional health care professionals such as art therapists, occupational or physical therapists, or dentists. Here’s how each of these professionals work together to create an intensive recovery plan:

  • Primary care physicians: Doctors versed in eating disorder treatment will be the first critical member of a care team. Physicians will be in charge of assessing the patient’s physical health, monitoring changes in physical wellbeing, and collaborating with other care team members to decide what steps are best for the patient’s recovery. 


  • Nurses: The nursing staff provides the direct care of the inpatient treatment plan. Nurses will provide sufficient nutritional intake, monitor and adjust electrolyte and fluid imbalance, and assist in developing increased self-esteem and realistic body image. 


  • Psychiatrists: Oftentimes medications are important in treating eating disorders. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe appropriate medications to treat co-occurring mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. They work closely with other care team members to understand the needs of the patient and what medications will aid in the road to recovery.


  • Therapists: A therapist uses various therapeutic approaches to address the symptoms of the eating disorder, as well as underlying problems such as trauma and social/cultural factors. A therapist’s presence on the care team is essential to helping the patient develop coping skills and manage stress. Sometimes impatient treatment care teams include specialized therapists, such as art or recreation therapists, who use multidisciplinary approaches to help the patient create a diverse set of tools to help them through recovery. 

  • Registered Dietitians: These professionals help the patient create healthier, more sustainable relationships with food and nutrition. Dietitians will focus on the specific dietary needs of the patient to stabilize nutritional status and establish long-term nutritional goals. 

Inpatient treatment looks different for everyone. Care teams may vary at different facilities or depending on the needs of the patient. However, the overarching goal of an inpatient care team is to stabilize the patient, address the medical and psychological impacts of the eating disorder, and work toward recovery. 

What Types of Treatments and Therapeutic Approaches Are Used?

Inpatient treatment provides an intensive level of care in treating an eating disorder. Specific treatment types and therapeutic approaches depend on the needs of the patient, the severity of the eating disorder, and the treatment facility’s resources. Each member of the care team will have a dedicated treatment plan tuned to the needs of the patient, whether medical, nutritional, therapeutic, or psychiatric. Treatments may include psychiatric examinations, electrocardiograms and lab testing, re-feeding intervention, nutrition counseling, exposure therapy, collaborative treatment plan development, and more. 

Various therapeutic approaches are available for treating eating disorders. Individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy are all commonly used to help facilitate recovery. Within these categories, several therapeutic treatments can be employed. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are all common approaches used by therapists on eating disorder care teams. 

Treatments used during inpatient programs may seem overwhelming, but your care team and support network are there to help. Each part of the treatment plan is meant to work toward healing and help you live a life beyond an eating disorder. 

woman sitting cross-legged holding her hands


What Happens After Inpatient Treatment? 

Inpatient treatment is just one step on the road to recovery from an eating disorder. Once the patient is stabilized and a long-term treatment plan is in place, they can continue taking steps toward recovery. This may include stepping down to a lower-level of care,  attending regular therapy and dietitian appointments, or joining support groups. Aftercare is a critical part of the care plan. Maintaining a close support network of loved ones and family members and engaging with a care team after being discharged from inpatient treatment is important to continuing the hard work that has already begun. 

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, you are not alone. Recovery is always possible and help is available with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.