Quick Facts on Anorexia Nervosa
A brief overview of the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa, and how it's treated in children and adolescents.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by severe weight loss, a dangerously low body weight, and a distorted body image that drives an otherwise high-functioning person—usually a young woman—to starve herself. Adolescents with anorexia keep themselves underweight by eating sparsely, as well as purging—by induced vomiting, laxative use, etc.—and exercising intensely, often without recognizing that their actions are unhealthy or that their perceptions of their bodies are not normal.
- Rejection of a healthy amount of food
- Dramatic dieting
- Compulsive exercise
- A gross overvaluing of shape and weight as components of her identity
- Extreme weight loss, abnormal thinness, brittle nails, hair loss, constipation, irregular menstruation, and swelling
- Distorted body image—what the child sees in the mirror as unacceptably fat is, to anyone else, disturbingly thin
- A combination of biological, genetic, and social factors
- The disorder is often triggered by a dieting regimen, which then spirals dangerously out of control
- There is evidence that the brain adapts to prolonged starvation; the longer it persists the more difficult the behavior is to resist
The first goal of any treatment is to restore your child to a healthy weight, and she should be immediately hospitalized for this purpose if she is in any medical danger.
Psychotherapy: The most successful treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy to identify family patterns that may be contributing to the eating disorder.
Treatment is more effective when the disorder is caught early, and the longer a child stays at a healthy weight, the less likely she is to relapse.
Pharmacological: Some drugs, particularly antidepressants, have proven helpful, but they are most often targeted at another condition the child might also have, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Treating the co-occurring disorder can make the therapy for anorexia more successful.
More on Anorexia Nervosa
For a complete guide to the disorder, and its treatment, in children and adults, see our Mental Health Guide. For more articles and videos on anorexia nervosa, see our Eating Disorders Hot Topic.