Pica is a mental health condition characterized by the intense urge to consume nonfood items. While these eating habits often subside without professional intervention, other people with pica will continue to eat dirt, hair, sand, feces or other non-food items for an extended period, which puts their health at risk. In most cases, these individuals require strategies from a treatment team of physicians, nutrition experts and mental health professionals to find relief from their symptoms.
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Although various factors contribute to the development of pica, a lack of certain nutrients can trigger the desire to eat non-food materials. This connection explains why some women who are pregnant and people with zinc or iron deficiencies may experience symptoms of pica.
To combat this cause, nutritional experts like physicians, dietitians and nutritionists test individuals with this condition for missing nutrients and other medical problems associated with pica, such as lead poisoning and indigestible masses in the body. Once the professionals establish physical safety, they will encourage diet changes to compensate for any nutrition deficiencies present.
With a balanced diet and adequate vitamins and minerals, pica symptoms tend to diminish quickly. If the person is unable or unwilling to adjust their food intake, the professional may recommend dietary supplements to stabilize and increase nutrients in the body.
Some people with pica will see their symptoms quickly diminish with nutritional coaching, diet change and supplements. Others will require mental health therapy to decrease unwanted urges.
Mental health treatment for children with pica focuses on:
- Educating people with pica and their families about the condition, including possible causes, risks and treatment strategies
- Creating a safe environment for the child where they will not be injured by consuming chemicals or other hazardous materials
- Removing preferred nonfood items from the home
- Increasing the supervision so the person cannot eat the nonfood items and blocking any attempts to do so
- Using distraction to sway the child toward a desirable behavior
- Praising the child for eating healthy food items and discarding nonfood items that they would have previously eaten
The cornerstone to childhood treatment of pica is behavior modification. The primary aim of this therapeutic technique is to reinforce desired behaviors through rewards, like food, verbal praise, money, toys and prizes. Parents may also administer punishments, like timeouts or extra chores, to decrease the frequency of pica behaviors. Studies of pica using these behavior modification principles saw a 96 percent reduction in eating nonfood items within weeks of the treatment beginning.
For adults with pica, many of the same techniques apply. Friends and family can take turns exposing their loved one to items the person would like to eat and reward them for resisting the urge to consume the items.
Currently, there are no medications specifically approved to treat pica, but that does not mean no drug options exist. Researchers and prescribers have begun to find some benefit from medicines.
Medications that enhance a chemical in the brain called dopamine might help improve pica symptoms. Medications like Zyprexa, a drug ordinarily used for schizophrenia, may also reduce the urges and impulses to eat nonfood items.
Additionally, medications used to manage severe behavioral problems in children may prove effective in treating pica as well. As always, it is essential to discuss all medication options with your physician.
Treating Pica and Co-Occurring Disorders
Since pica commonly co-occurs with other mental health disorders, it is valuable to receive a thorough evaluation from a mental health specialist to understand what other conditions may be present and the best ways to manage their symptoms.
Pica frequently co-occurs with mental health conditions like:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Intellectual disabilities
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder)
- Excoriation (skin-picking) disorder
When mental health conditions co-occur, the individual and treatment providers must take steps to address all symptoms, rather than only focusing on one symptom or one condition. Without a comprehensive approach to pica and co-occurring disorder treatment, there will be limited progress.
Some people may experience substance abuse related to their pica. If this is the case for you or a loved one, call The Recovery Village today. The Recovery Village specializes in treatments for substance use disorders and the conditions they co-occur with to set you on the path toward recovery and wellness.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013. Berger, F.K. “Pica.” MedlinePlus. March 26, 2018. Accessed on April 5, 2019. Ellis, C.R. “Pica.” Medscape. April 1, 2016. Accessed on April 5, 2019. Gavin, M.L. “Pica.” Kids Health. April 2014. Accessed on April 5, 2019. Pace, G.M. and Toyer, E.A. “The Effects of a Vitamin Supplement on the Pica of a Child with Severe Mental Retardation.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Winter 2000. Accessed on April 5, 2019. ScienceDaily. “Behavioral Therapy Effective Against Pica in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” February 8, 2015. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.
Berger, F.K. “Pica.” MedlinePlus. March 26, 2018. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
Ellis, C.R. “Pica.” Medscape. April 1, 2016. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
Gavin, M.L. “Pica.” Kids Health. April 2014. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
Pace, G.M. and Toyer, E.A. “The Effects of a Vitamin Supplement on the Pica of a Child with Severe Mental Retardation.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Winter 2000. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
ScienceDaily. “Behavioral Therapy Effective Against Pica in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” February 8, 2015. Accessed on April 5, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.