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Anorexia Nervosa

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by unrealistic fear of weight gain, self-starvation, and conspicuous distortion of body image. The name comes from two Latin words that mean nervous inability to eat. In females who have begun to menstruate, anorexia nervosa is usually marked by amenorrhea, or skipping at least three menstrual periods in a row. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV (1994), defines two subtypes of anorexia nervosa—a restricting type, characterized by strict dieting and exercise without binge eating; and a binge-eating/purging type, marked by episodes of compulsive eating with or without self-induced vomiting and the use of laxatives or enemas. DSM-IV defines a binge as a time-limited (usually under two hours) episode of compulsive eating in which the individual consumes a significantly larger amount of food than most people would eat in similar circumstances.


Anorexia nervosa was not officially classified as a psychiatric disorder until the third edition of DSM in 1980. It is, however, a growing problem among adolescent females. Its incidence in the United States has doubled since 1970. The rise in the number of reported cases reflects a genuine increase in the number of persons affected by the disorder, and not simply earlier or more accurate diagnosis. Estimates of the incidence of anorexia range between 0.5–1% of caucasian female adolescents. Over 90% of patients diagnosed with the disorder as of 1998 are female. It was originally thought that only 5% of anorexics are male, but that estimate is being revised upward. The peak age range for onset of the disorder is 14-18 years, although there are patients who develop anorexia as late as their 40s. In the 1970s and 1980s, anorexia was regarded as a disorder of upper- and middle-class women, but that generalization is also changing. More recent studies indicate that anorexia is increasingly common among women of all races and social classes in the United States.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious public health problem not only because of its rising incidence, but also because it has one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder. Moreover, the disorder may cause serious long-term health complications, including congestive heart failure, sudden death, growth retardation, dental problems, constipation, stomach rupture, swelling of the salivary glands, anemia and other abnormalities of the blood, loss of kidney function, and osteoporosis.

Causes and symptoms

Anorexia is a disorder that results from the interaction of cultural and interpersonal as well as biological factors. While the precise cause of the disease is not known, it has been linked to the following:

Social influences

The rising incidence of anorexia is thought to reflect the present idealization of thinness as a badge of upper-class status as well as of female beauty. In addition, the increase in cases of anorexia includes "copycat" behavior, with some patients developing the disorder from imitating other girls.

The onset of anorexia in adolescence is attributed to a developmental crisis caused by girls' changing bodies coupled with society's overemphasis on women's looks. The increasing influence of the mass media in spreading and reinforcing gender stereotypes has also been noted.

Occupational goals

The risk of developing anorexia is higher among adolescents preparing for careers that require attention to weight and/or appearance. These high-risk groups include dancers, fashion models, professional athletes (including gymnasts, skaters, long-distance runners, and jockeys), and actresses.

Genetic and biological influences

Women whose biological mothers or sisters have the disorder appear to be at increased risk.

Psychological factors

A number of theories have been advanced to explain the psychological aspects of the disorder. No single explanation covers all cases. Anorexia nervosa has been interpreted as:

  • A rejection of female sexual maturity. This rejection is variously interpreted as a desire to remain a child, or as a desire to resemble men as closely as possible.
  • A reaction to sexual abuse or assault.
  • A desire to appear as fragile and nonthreatening as possible. This hypothesis reflects the idea that female passivity and weakness are attractive to men.
  • Overemphasis on control, autonomy, and independence. Some anorexics come from achievement-oriented families that stress physical fitness and dieting. Many anorexics are perfectionistic and "driven" about schoolwork and other matters in addition to weight control.
  • Evidence of family dysfunction. In some families, a daughter's eating disorder serves as a distraction from marital discord or other family tensions.
  • Inability to interpret the body's hunger signals accurately due to early experiences of inappropriate feeding.

Male anorexics

Although anorexia nervosa is still considered a disorder that largely affects women, its incidence in the male population is rising. Less is known about the causes of anorexia in males, but some risk factors are the same as for females. These include certain occupational goals and increasing media emphasis on external appearance in men. Moreover, homosexual males are under pressure to conform to an ideal body weight that is about 20 pounds lighter than the standard "attractive" weight for heterosexual males.


Diagnosis of anorexia nervosa is complicated by a number of factors. One is that the disorder varies somewhat in severity from patient to patient. A second factor is denial, which is regarded as an early sign of the disorder. Most anorexics deny that they are ill and are usually brought to treatment by a family member.

Most anorexics are diagnosed by pediatricians or family practitioners. Anorexics develop emaciated bodies, dry or yellowish skin, and abnormally low blood pressure. There is usually a history of amenorrhea (failure to menstruate) in females, and sometimes of abdominal pain, constipation, or lack of energy. The patient may feel chilly or have developed lanugo, a growth of downy body hair. If the patient has been vomiting, she may have eroded tooth enamel or Russell's sign (scars on the back of the hand). The second step in diagnosis is measurement of the patient's weight loss. DSM-IV specifies a weight loss leading to a body weight 15% below normal, with some allowance for body build and weight history.

The doctor will need to rule out other physical conditions that can cause weight loss or vomiting after eating, including metabolic disorders, brain tumors (especially hypothalamus and pituitary gland lesions), diseases of the digestive tract, and a condition called superior mesenteric artery syndrome. Persons with this condition sometimes vomit after meals because the blood supply to the intestine is blocked. The doctor will usually order blood tests, an electrocardiogram, urinalysis, and bone densitometry (bone density test) in order to exclude other diseases and to assess the patient's nutritional status.

The doctor will also need to distinguish between anorexia and other psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder. Two diagnostic tests that are often used are the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT) and the Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI).


Treatment of anorexia nervosa includes both short- and long-term measures, and requires assessment by dietitians and psychiatrists as well as medical specialists. Therapy is often complicated by the patient's resistance or failure to carry out treatment plan.

Hospital treatment

Hospitalization is recommended for anorexics with any of the following characteristics:

  • weight of 40% or more below normal; or weight loss over a three-month period of more than 30 pounds
  • severely disturbed metabolism
  • severe binging and purging
  • signs of psychosis
  • severe depression or risk of suicide
  • family in crisis

Hospital treatment includes individual and group therapy as well as refeeding and monitoring of the patient's physical condition. Treatment usually requires two to four months in the hospital. In extreme cases, hospitalized patients may be force-fed through a tube inserted in the nose (nasogastric tube) or by over-feeding (hyperalimentation techniques).

Outpatient treatment

Anorexics who are not severely malnourished can be treated by outpatient psychotherapy. The types of treatment recommended are supportive rather than insight-oriented, and include behavioral approaches as well as individual or group therapy. Family therapy is often recommended when the patient's eating disorder is closely tied to family dysfunction. Self-help groups are often useful in helping anorexics find social support and encouragement. Psychotherapy with anorexics is a slow and difficult process; about 50% of patients continue to have serious psychiatric problems after their weight has stabilized.


Anorexics have been treated with a variety of medications, including antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and lithium carbonate. The effectiveness of medications in treatment regimens is still debated. However, at least one study of Prozac showed it helped the patient maintain weight gained while in the hospital.


Figures for long-term recovery vary from study to study, but the most reliable estimates are that 40-60% of anorexics will make a good physical and social recovery, and 75% will gain weight. The long-term mortality rate for anorexia is estimated at around 10%, although some studies give a lower figure of 3-4%. The most frequent causes of death associated with anorexia are starvation, electrolyte imbalance, heart failure, and suicide.


Short of major long-term changes in the larger society, the best strategy for prevention of anorexia is the cultivation of healthy attitudes toward food, weight control, and beauty (or body image) within families.



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Kaplan, David W., and Kathleen A. Mammel. "Adolescence." In Current Pediatric Diagnosis & Treatment, ed. William W. Hay Jr., et al. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1997.

Mitchell, James E. "Anorexia Nervosa: Medical and Physiological Aspects." In Handbook of Eating Disorders, ed. Kelly D. Brownell and John P. Foreyt. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986.

"Physical Conditions in Adolescence: Anorexia Nervosa." In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 16th ed. Ed. Robert Berkow. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.


American Anorexia/Bulimia Association. 418 East 76th St., New York, NY 10021. (212) 734-1114.

National Institute of Mental Health Eating Disorders Program, Building 10, Room 3S231. 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892. (301) 496-1891.

Rebecca J. Frey


Amenorrhea—Absence of the menses in a female who has begun to have menstrual periods.

Binge eating—A pattern of eating marked by episodes of rapid consumption of large amounts of food; usually food that is high in calories.

Body dysmorphic disorder—A psychiatric disorder marked by preoccupation with an imagined physical defect.

Hyperalimentation—A method of refeeding anorexics by infusing liquid nutrients and electrolytes directly into central veins through a catheter.

Lanugo—A soft, downy body hair that develops on the chest and arms of anorexic women.

Purging—The use of vomiting, diuretics, or laxatives to clear the stomach and intestines after a binge.

Russell's sign—Scraped or raw areas on the patient's knuckles, caused by self-induced vomiting.

Superior mesenteric artery syndrome—A condition in which a person vomits after meals due to blockage of the blood supply to the intestine.

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