Pica (allotrophagy): causes, symptoms and possible treatments

There are different types of eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. While these are well known to most people, some of them are not so well known. One of these is the Pica syndrome He Allotrophagy, An eating disorder that primarily affects children.

Its main feature is that the person who suffers from it is an uncontrollable desire or urge to ingest non-nutritive substances.Among them, earth, ants, baking soda, glue, insects, paper, small pieces of plastic or wood.

De Pica syndrome is associated with children with cognitive difficulties and other developmental disabilities, for example autism. Up to 30% of children with this disorder have Pica. Although this behavior can be seen in other young children, people with autism continue to practice this practice at a later age.

    Pica syndrome: main features

    Therefore, this disorder it is characterized by a persistent desire that leads the person to want to eat substances such as earth or paint. Substances which, in addition to containing no nutritional value, cause the person with Pica to endanger their health.

    The Manual of Child Clinical Psychology estimates that the current prevalence of this disorder is between 4% and 26% of the institutionalized population. Some of the most common causes of Pica syndrome are nutritional disorders, mental illness, and psychological issues. However, in most cases, the trigger for this behavior is unknown.

    However, it is important to treat this problem as soon as possible to avoid complications, As an increased risk of gastrointestinal illness and social maladjustment

    How is Pica syndrome diagnosed

    If there is the slightest suspicion that someone may be suffering from this disorder, immediate medical evaluation is important to find out if there is anemia, intestinal problems or toxicity caused by the substances ingested. Your doctor may use x-rays or blood tests to determine the extent or consequences of such consumption.

    In addition, the doctor can also perform a thorough evaluation to see if there are any possible infections caused by objects or substances contaminated by batteries. On the other hand, it is important to conduct a review of the patient’s eating habits.

    The presence of the psychologist is also important to make a correct diagnosis.. It is therefore essential to assess the presence of other disorders, such as mental retardation, developmental disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    According to the DSM-V, the behavior pattern of the person with Pica has the following characteristics:

    • Continuous feeding of inappropriate substances should last at least one month for the diagnosis of Pica syndrome.
    • The supply of non-nutritive substances is insufficient for the level of development of the individual.
    • Inadequate eating behavior is not part of a cultural or social practice.
    • If this occurs in the presence of another mental disorder (eg, autism) or during a medical condition (eg, pregnancy), it is severe enough to require independent medical attention.

    Treatments and follow-ups

    Due to the high risk of medical complications (eg, poisoning) associated with Pica, close medical supervision is necessary throughout treatment of eating behavior. Obviously, this treatment cannot be understood without the figure of a psychologist and / or psychiatrist expert in the treatment of eating behaviors.

    The Handbook of Child Clinical Psychology emphasizes the application of cognitive-behavioral strategies because of their effectiveness in the treatment of these psychopathologies. For example, it is possible to train subjects to eat or not to eat harmful substances through the application of reinforcement techniques.

    Complications associated with Pica syndrome

    As already mentioned, this disorder can lead to serious health problems. Some of the complications associated with Pica syndrome are:

    • Some products such as paint may contain toxic substances, And eating them can lead to poisoning. This can lead to serious complications, such as brain damage and even death.
    • Ingestion of substances that cannot be digested (For example, stones) can cause constipation or a blockage in the digestive tract, including the intestines. In addition, sharp objects can cause injury to the mouth, neck or stomach.
    • Bacteria or parasites ingested can cause infections serious diseases that can damage both the liver and kidneys.
    • The existence of other psychological disorders they can make it difficult to treat Pica syndrome.


    Usually, Pica syndrome begins in childhood and lasts only a few months. However, it will likely be more difficult to manage in children with developmental disabilities because these may continue to show this behavior in old age.

    But can we prevent this eating disorder? There is no specific way to prevent it. However, special attention to the eating habits of the little ones and close monitoring of children most likely to put things in their mouths can help prevent illness before complications arise.

    As is always the case with this type of disorder, it is essential to prevent this type of behavior from becoming part of a person’s daily routine, so the sooner you intervene, the better. Once this behavior is consolidated, it is more difficult to make it go away.

    An irrational impulse

    Pica syndrome is a specimen that under certain circumstances human beings are capable of adopting extremely harmful and maladaptive patterns of behavior which have no clear benefit. In allotrophagy, not only the stomach is filled impulsivelyBut in addition, the substances ingested are not nutritious and, in many cases, are toxic.

    Understanding the psychological mechanisms behind Pica syndrome involves finding the mental processes that reinforce this “loop” of actions that is maintained over time, abandoning explanations based on the patient’s rational decisions.

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