Do you or someone you know have muscle dysmorphia? Learn more about this recently identified psychological condition.

Often called bigorexia or reverse anorexia, muscle dysmorphia is characterized by distortions in body image. A disorder affecting mainly men, individuals with this mental health condition see their muscles as underdeveloped and believe themselves to be too thin or small, even if this is not the case.

What Is Muscle Dysmorphia?

Muscle dysmorphia is a psychological condition in which a person believes that their body and muscles are too small. Although typically associated with men, muscle dysmorphia can also occur in women. Muscle dysmorphia is believed to be a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder, in which excessive concern and preoccupation are given to a perceived physical defect.

Signs of Muscle Dysmorphia

Aside from measuring a person’s body mass index (BMI), few reliable physical or psychological characteristics exist to evaluate muscle dysmorphia.     

Commonly reported signs include:

  • Spending an extended amount of time thinking about becoming more muscular
  • Excessive body monitoring practices
  • Unrealistic diet and exercise regimens, often causing significant distress
  • Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance, especially regarding muscularity and size
  • A strong belief of having substandard muscles, even in the face of the contrary
  • Active avoidance of situations involving potential body exposure
  • Avoiding people, places or events due to muscularity concerns

Often, these symptoms interfere with daily responsibilities and well-being, including work and family relationships.

Causes of Muscle Dysmorphia

Muscle dysmorphia is a relatively recently identified medical condition with complex psychological and biological underpinnings. While increasing at an alarming pace, societal pressures and media portrayals of the “ideal” male body image are not the only determinants in developing muscle dysmorphia.

Some studies implicate muscle dysmorphia as a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Others have shown it may be a reaction to physical abuse or sexual assault. A correlation with being a victim of childhood bullying has also been demonstrated. At this point, more research is required before the root causes of muscle dysmorphia can be understood fully.

The “Adonis Complex”

The term “Adonis complex” derives from Greek mythology in which Adonis, a half-man half-god, was the epitome of masculine beauty. The term may be used to describe males who have become fixated, to the point of obsession, on attaining the “perfect” body. This unhealthy preoccupation with muscularity and appearance often leads to personal dissatisfaction, and may even interfere with a person’s day-to-day life.

Statistics on Bigorexia

Studies on the prevalence of muscle dysmorphia vary, with a study of university males showing a prevalence as high as 1.9%. Of those officially diagnosed with muscle dysmorphia, 87.5% were male, and they ranged from 15 to 32 years old.   

Muscle Dysmorphia and Concurrent Disorders

People with muscle dysmorphia may turn to supplements in excess to aid them in their pursuit of an unfeasible body image. At times, this may predispose them to significant health concerns. Additionally, people with this condition may use illicit substances such as anabolic steroids or testosterone in an attempt to increase muscle mass further. Susceptible to image-related ideals and patterns, people with muscle dysmorphia often succumb to substance abuse and eating disorders.

Muscle Dysmorphia Treatment

Many people with muscle dysmorphia are unaware they have the condition, so the first step is to identify those suffering. Currently, no specific pharmacological treatment exists; however, a professional can help identify underlying patterns of harmful thoughts and behaviors that may be at the root of the problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is extremely effective for muscle dysmorphia. While CBT remains the therapy of choice, certain antidepressants that have been proven effective in treating the obsessive-compulsive component of muscle dysmorphia can be used.

If you are affected by muscle dysmorphia and a co-occurring substance use disorder, The Recovery Village is here to help. Reach out today for more information.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Davis Sugar, MD
Davis has a Bachelor's in Neuroscience, a Bachelor's in Psychology and a medical degree. Davis' next academic adventure is pursuing a masters in business administration. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.