What is Pica Disorder?

June 21, 2022

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

Eating Disorder Treatment Teams    Levels of Eating Disorder Care

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.

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