What Is Pica And Whom Does It Affect?

Everything You Should Know About Pica)

Have you ever looked at a mound of sand and thought to yourself, “Yum!”? If this sounds completely ridiculous to you, then you don’t have pica. Pica is an eating disorder which compels people to eat non-food items for no apparent reason. Like the magpie after which the disorder is named, people suffering from pica eat almost anything from needles and paint, to pebbles and even animal waste. This disorder manifests in babies over 18 months old, but can affect people at any stage of their life.

Who Is Most Commonly Affected By It?

The number of people suffering from pica are the highest between the age group of 1-6 years. Often children who eat inappropriate things like sand are exploring their surroundings and haven’t learnt to control their impulses yet. As many as 32% of children in this age group have pica, but many times it resolves itself before adulthood. Sometimes though, the disorder can carry on into a child’s teenage years and becomes very serious. While this is largely dependent on each child, different age groups eat broadly similar objects. For example, younger children and toddlers seem to eat things like hair and paint, while older, pre-adolescents compulsively eat soil, insects and animal poo.

Another group in which pica is commonly found is among mentally disabled people. Younger patients (those below the age of 20) seem particularly susceptible to developing pica. This disorder can put a strain on their caregivers, who have to constantly restrain them from ingesting random objects. Because they can’t control their impulses, patients with pica can ingest dangerous objects like needles, lead and glass, which can cause them serious harm.

Pica also gives a whole new meaning to pregnancy cravings. Some pregnant women develop pica during their first trimester of pregnancy. This can be very dangerous because they are putting their health as well as the health of their baby at risk.

While statistically, the number of adults suffering from this disorder is very low, the actual number might be higher than they seem. Adults are conscious of how strange their compulsions are, so they often go to great lengths to hide it. This means that fewer adults report having this disorder, which might account for the low numbers.

What Triggers Pica?

There isn’t one definitive answer on what actually compels people to eat strange things. In some cases (especially among younger children), the desire to eat inappropriate things might arise from a nutritional deficiency. In the same way puppies who lick paint might be showing signs of calcium deficiency, children who eat plaster and sand might be malnourished too. This argument is further supported by the fact that there are more children in poor societies who suffer from pica and are often seen eating soil.

Pica might also be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. People suffering from OCD have a compulsion to do certain things repeatedly, a compulsion which they cannot control. Battling with OCD can put a person at a higher risk for pica, because it’s also a form of uncontrollable impulses.

Treatment For Pica

The first step taken after a patient is found to have pica, is to do a complete body analysis. A series of tests are conducted to check if the patient is suffering from any nutritional deficiencies, especially for calcium, iron and zinc. If they are low in certain nutrients, then a change in diet along with the necessary supplements usually cures the problem.

If a person is completely normal from a nutritional standpoint, then pica is treated through therapy. In simple cases, principles of operant conditioning are put into practice by letting a person face negative consequences for eating inappropriate things and rewarding them if they don’t. In cases where pica arises from more complex behavioral issues, a multi-pronged approach, combining cognitive and behavioral therapy is used.

In situation-specific cases of pica (such as children with deficiencies or pregnant women), the disorder usually clears up quickly. However, for more serious cases, intensive therapy and close monitoring are the only ways to resolve the disorder.