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Statistics Find Concerning Increase in Hospitalizations for Pica Eating Disorder


Overall, eating disorders appear to be on the decline. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality finds that conditions such as anorexia and bulimia as the primary reason for hospitalization has declined by 23% between 2007 and 2009. However, in-patient stays for another eating disorder called pica has sharply increased by 93% since 1999.

Pica is a disordered pattern of eating non-food materials such as dirt, paper, paint, clay, sand or even feces. It is seen more often in young children than adults – between 10 and 32% of children 1-6 have these behaviors, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

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Warning signs that a child may have pica include repetitive consumption of nonfood items, despite efforts to restrict it for a period of at least one month or longer. The specific causes of pica are unknown but certain conditions can increase risk, such as malnutrition and other nutrient deficiencies (particularly iron and zinc), dieting, pregnancy, cultural factors, parental neglect or food deprivation, and mental health or developmental disorders.

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According to the AHRQ News and Numbers summary which draws data from a nationwide inpatient sample, the number of hospital stays for patients with pica increased from 964 to 1,862 over the past ten years. Over 30% of child hospitalizations with pica in 2009 had autism spectrum disorders.

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Parents who suspect their child may have pica should talk with their pediatrician. Treatment for pica should first address any missing nutrients or other medical problems such as lead exposure from eating paint or infection from ingesting harmful bacteria. Medication and behavioral therapy may also be beneficial.

Of course, medical care should be sought immediately if the child has ingested something harmful or poisonous, or if the item forms an indigestible mass that blocks the intestines (called a bezoar).

Source Reference:
Zhao, Y., Encinosa, W. An Update on Hospitalizations for Eating Disorders, 1999 to 2009. HCUP Statistical Brief #120. September, 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb120.pdf