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Defining the Causes of Pica Disorder

written by: Brandy A Burgess • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/23/2010

Finding the causes of pica disorder is the first step to understanding the condition and how to treat it. Without treatment, pica can result in serious health problems and complications.

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    What is Pica?

    The causes of pica disorder can range from certain body deficiencies to various diseases and conditions. Pica is a medical disorderCoins  that is characterized by the consumption of non-nutritious foods, ingredients or materials. Common forms of a pica appetite include metal (ex. coins), soil, paper, mucus, feces, chalk, gum, ash, and coal. Some who suffer from pica disorder consume certain food ingredients, such as raw rice, flour, ice cubes, raw potato or salt. Understanding the causes of pica disorder can help to diagnose and treat the condition.

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    Nutrient Deficiency

    Nutrient deficiency is one of the more common causes of pica disorder. This usually indicates a poor amount of iron or zinc in the body. The mineral deficiency itself can be caused by a number of sources, including parasites that feed on that specific mineral resulting in decreased amounts in the body. An iron deficiency can sometimes be caused by a condition, such as coeliac disease. Coeliac, or celiac, is an autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine and typically occurs in predisposed people of any age.

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    Mental Health Conditions

    Pica has been linked to various mental health conditions and is recognized as a mental disorder in its own form. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), physiological, sensory, psychosocial and cultural aspects can also be used to provide a cause of the pica eating. Certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are also linked to the disorder. Patients in the obsessive-compulsive spectrum possess various neurological, psychiatric or medical conditions that can suggest a connection between the two conditions.

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    Trauma Traumatic Brain Injury

    Extensive stress-related situations or traumatic events are associated with pica disorder and may be an underlying cause of the condition. Common events that could signal pica include parental separation, disorganized family structure, neglect, lack of parent-child interaction, and child abuse. Pica is fairly common on those with developmental challenges, retardation and patients who have suffered from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). There are a number of causes for Traumatic Brain Injury, with the most common types being an open or closed head injury, metabolic disorder, deceleration injuries, and lack of oxygen, stroke or infections.

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    Culture Practice

    Not all forms of pica stem from a deficiency, mental illness or other condition. In some parts of the world, people consume non-nutritive foods for culture or health beliefs, rather than to please a psychopathology condition. The ingestion of kaolin, or white dirt, is common among African-American women living in the U.S. state of Georgia. This is known as a “culture-bound syndrome”, similar to the consumption of kaolin in parts of Africa. These beliefs come from the thought of the clay’s ability to absorb tannic, alkaloids and plant toxins.

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    Pica Prognosis

    Understanding the causes of pica before the disorder has the opportunity to cause severe health problems is essential to a safe recovery. Pica is a serious mental health condition that can result in future health problems, especially in undiagnosed children.