Eating disorders can lead to simple reversible complications such as anemia and irregular periods or eventually result in serious effects like heart failure or even result in death. The time period as to when these effects will occur cannot be predetermined. It is dependent on the individual’s constitution, severity of the eating disorder and as to when appropriate treatment is initiated.
While the signs and symptoms of the eating disorder will give an indication of the most likely complication that may arise soon, preventing these effects will depend on the level of care, patient compliance, past medical history and ability to recover. It is important to note that even if the patient is undergoing treatment and there are promising signs of recovery, the complications associated with the different types of eating disorders can still occur even after treatment is initiated.
Complications of Eating Disorders
These complications can occur in the more common types of eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating and compulsive over-eating disorders. Some of the complications may be isolated to cases of the rare types of eating disorders, like pica and muscle dysmorphia.
- Amenorrhea (no period) and infertility as a result of hormonal imbalance.
- Abdominal pain which may be a result of gastrointestinal conditions, liver and pancreas disorders.
- Changes in bowel movements, usually constipation but also diarrhea may occur.
- Brittle nails, dry skin and hair loss.
- Brittle bones due to osteopenia and osteoporosis.
- Cardiovascular complications like hypertension, arrhythmias, enlarged heart and heart failure.
- Dehydration as a result of vomiting and diuretic or laxative misuse.
- Diabetes which may be linked to obesity.
- Death may occur due to a number of causes including kidney failure and cardiac complications.
- Drug and alcohol abuse complications.
- Gastrointestinal complications including peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hiatal hernia, gastric dilatation and/or perforation.
- High cholesterol linked to obesity.
- Kidney failure.
- Neurological complications like seizures, poor memory, impaired cognitive ability and peripheral neuropathy (pain, numbness and/or tingling) due to brain and/or nerve damage.
- Parotid gland enlargement on both sides.
- Aggravation of already existing psychiatric problems with a tendency to become withdrawn and less sociable. This may result in the degradation of interpersonal relationships.
- Side effects from anabolic steroid use, which is seen more often in males with bigorexia (muscle dysmorphia).
- Pica, another form of eating disorder where a person craves for and eats non-food items (such as chalk, mud and various other things), can cause lead poisoning, human intestinal worm infestation, malnutrition, diarrhea and intestinal obstruction.
Eating disorders need to be recognized and diagnosed early so that the appropriate medical treatment and psychotherapy can be commenced. Immediate intervention will limit or even reverse some of the effects of eating disorders and with support and supervision during the recovery period, the chances of serious complications are drastically reduced.