Autocannibalism (disease): causes, symptoms and treatment

Most people may know someone who bites their fingernails. They often do this in situations of nervousness or stress, to relax and decrease tension. Other people tear, chew, and even eat their own hair.

Others get hurt. Although not a common occurrence, there have been occasional cases of individuals who, for various reasons, whether or not they experience reduced anxiety, decide to attack and consume parts of their body. own flesh, causing serious injury. We are talking about self-cannibalism.

Cannibalism and autocannibalism

Cannibalism is the act or practice of consuming and feeding on members of the same species. This practice has been observed in nature in several species, usually in the presence of a prolonged absence of other foods or as a method of population control.

Cases of cannibalism have also been observed in humans throughout history. In many cases, these practices are also the result of a lack of food. We know, for example, that during the black plague epidemic that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages, many graves were looted in order to consume the flesh of the dead. At other times, these practices are linked to rituals of a religious type, as in different African and South American tribes.

Certain drugs or psychotic episodes can lead to aggression which results in an attempt to feed on the opponent. There have also been cases in which acts of cannibalism have been derived from sadistic-type paraphilias, in some cases accepted by victims and even devouring their own organs.

To finish it has come to be used intentionally as a means of terrorizing and morally destroying a target population, Both faced with the idea of ​​being consumed and of being forced to consume human flesh.

Eat your own meat

So, as mentioned, cannibalism refers to the consumption of meat from individuals belonging to the same species. However, there are cases in which the cannibalistic act is directed against the person who consumes.

Self-cannibalism differs from the practice of cannibalism in that, as a general rule, the purpose of the behavior is not usually the consumption of human flesh, but it tends to be linked to an attempt to reduce anxiety and internal tension of whoever performs it or temporarily releases feelings of self-rejection or emotional pain. Self-cannibalism is not recorded as a disorder per se, but rather as the result or manifestation of some type of problem.

In what contexts does auto-cannibalism appear?

Like other types of self-injurious behavior, this type of behavior is generally linked to the presence of severe cognitive and perceptual disorders. Subjects who practice them tend to have impaired consciousness or reduced cognitive ability.

Some of the cases detected are usually linked to severe cases of disorders which are accompanied by deterioration of cognitive abilities and self-awareness. When faced with situations which produce in the subject a high level of activation, agitation and impulsivity, self-injurious behaviors sometimes appear (including self-cannibalism in the form of self-bites) generally as a mechanism for controlling anxiety and internal tensions.

It sometimes occurs in people with intellectual disabilities, some severe cases of neurodevelopmental disorders (self-harm has occurred in some cases of autism). Likewise, autocannibalism can occur during psychotic epidemics or in people suffering from intoxication by psychodysleptic substances (hallucinogens, for example) or psychoanaleptics (exciting).

These behaviors have also been observed as a comforting method in certain withdrawal syndromes.. There have even been cases of certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality.

Finally, this type of behavior has been observed in some subjects who link self-harm and consumption of their own organism to sexual pleasure, deriving from sadomasochistic paraphilias. An example of this is in the case of Rottemburgo’s cannibal, the victim agreed to eat parts of his body before being devoured.

Lesch-Nyhan syndrome

In addition to appearing in situations and disorders such as those mentioned above, there is a medical syndrome in which acts of self-cannibalism are relatively common, which has earned it the popular name of the disease. self-cannibalism. It’s Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.

This genetic disease, linked to a defect in a recessive gene on the X chromosome, causes the enzyme hypoxanthine-guanine-phosphoribosyl-transferase. this tends to cause overproduction of uric acid, neurological dysfunctions that often cause intellectual disability and behavioral alterations.

Within these behavioral alterations, the presence of constant self-harm stands out, including acts of self-cannibalism focused on biting parts of the body that may be affected, particularly the fingers and lips. It only occurs in males, although females can be carriers and pass it on to their offspring.

possible treatments

Since these are symptoms rather than a disorder per se, the treatment of auto-cannibalism was often linked to the treatment of the type of problem causing it. It is necessary to take into account the reason why the self-harm is carried out and the degree of consciousness of the individual who is performing it at the time of doing it.

At the psychological level, the use of different behavior modification techniques can be helpful. One of the techniques used for the treatment of self-injurious behaviors such as self-cannibalism is Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which seeks to make a change in behavior while trying to change the type of relationship with the subject. Suffering caused by this type of behavior.

Other types of therapy like conditioning in the form of reinforcement by emitting incompatible behaviors could be useful in varying the type of behavior in cases where self-cannibalism is a response to anxious situations.

If the act of self-cannibalism occurs for sexual reasons it may be appropriate to use techniques aimed at redirecting desire to another type of stimulation and decreasing the attractiveness of auto-cannibal behavior.. Although not a generally recommended type of treatment, in very severe cases aversive chemical-type techniques may be applied, causing the subject to self-harm and attempt to consume their own meat.

If the practice of self-cannibalization is now derived from substance use or a psychotic epidemic, treatment should be aimed primarily at controlling the epidemic or poisoning in question and reducing its symptoms.

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