What is Pica Disorder?
The word “pica” is Latin for magpie—a bird known for eating almost anything. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Pica can be defined as a feeding or eating disorder that involves eating non-nutritive, non-food substances. These items can include, but are not limited to:
• Paper • Chalk
• Glass • Dirt
• Clay • Hair
• Paint • Soap
Who Develops Pica?
Pica is considered to be a relatively rare disorder but is most commonly seen in pregnant individuals and young children. In fact, studies estimate that less than 10% of children in the United States older than 12 years of age meet diagnostic criteria for Pica (Moline, et al., 2021). However, Pica can affect anyone, of any age, gender, race, ethnicity, wealth, job status, sexual orientation, ability, neurodiversity, or body shape and size.
While there is not one known cause for the development of Pica, some individuals may be more at risk, including those with:
• Autism Spectrum Disorder
• Intellectual Disabilities
• Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
• Neglect or abuse histories
• Malnutrition and hunger
• Low levels of iron or zinc have been linked to Pica
Additionally, some studies have reported a high prevalence of Pica among children in treatment for sickle cell anemia (Rodrigues, et al., 2019) and another one showed high rates among school-aged children in Africa (van Hoeken, et al., 2016).
It is important to note that Pica is not diagnosed in children younger than 2 years old, as it is considered developmentally appropriate for kids to put things in their mouth up until that age. It also would not be diagnosed if the consumption of such non-food items is part of a culturally supported and/or socially normative practice, such as eating clay for medicinal purposes.
Medical Complications of Pica
Eating non-food items can lead to different medical complications, depending 0n what is being consumed. These medical issues can include:
• Iron-deficiency anemia
• Lead poisoning
• Constipation or diarrhea
• Intestinal infections
• Intestinal obstructions
• Mouth or teeth injuries
Types of Pica Treatment
The most common approaches to treating Pica are:
• A behavioral approach, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
• Family therapy
• Nutritional counseling
• Medical monitoring and treatment
• It will be important to correct any vitamin or mineral deficiencies that
may be present.
• Medication for co-occurring medical or psychological conditions
Reach Out for Help
Although it may not be as well-known as some other eating disorders, Pica can cause serious health consequences and interfere with a person’s psychosocial functioning. If you, your child, or any loved one is struggling with Pica, please reach out to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders for resources and support. If you are ready to take the next step in your recovery journey, please visit www.FindEDHelp.com. This national, interactive database allows you to explore treatment options at all levels of care.