PHYSICAL PROBLEMS/MEDICAL COMPLICATIONS
Eating Disorders have a multitude of medical complications ranging from mild to severe. In Anorexia, for example, it is believed that 5-20% of anorexics die, usually from complications associated with self-starvation, such as: heart, kidney, or multiple organ failure, or illnesses like pneumonia, which may be due to an inability to fight infection—all ultimately due to the anorexia. Studies show that the longer one has anorexia, the higher the mortality rate. Someone who has been anorexic for five years has about a 5% chance of mortality, but the rate increases to 18% in individuals who suffer chronically for 30 years (Reference: Kathryn Zerbe p. 250).
Let’s take a closer look at some of the complications that can arise during the course of eating disorders:
Starving, bingeing, and purging all lead to electrolyte imbalances. Electrolytes, are chemicals like sodium, potassium, and chloride. They help regulate your heartbeat. When dehydration occurs, from purging, diuretic & laxative abuse, electrolytes like potassium are lowered, which typically result in cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat—too fast, too slow, or lacking the proper rhythm. Some arrhythmia aren’t dangerous and may subside once the body is restored to health. Others arrhythmias are extremely dangerous and can lead to cardiac arrest. It’s a bit like playing Russian Roulette, there are no guarantees as to who develops an arrhythmia or other severe consequence.
The heart’s size can also be affected. When people starve and lose weight, they do not lose only fat, they also lose muscle mass. Since the heart itself is a muscle, starvation can lead to decreases in both mass and chamber size.
For the heart to beat, lungs to work, and blood to travel through our veins, the body requires energy. Starving causes an energy crisis, in response to which the body literally slows down to conserve what little energy it has left in order to perform the basic functions required to sustain life. In addition to the metabolism slowing down, the heart rate also slows down, a condition called “bradycardia.” Most women’s hearts average ap- proximately 80 beats per minute, but some anorexics have had heart rates as low as 25 beats per minute (Kaplan 1993, p. 73).
One of the most common problems experienced by those with eating disorders is delayed gastric emptying, which essentially means that food leaves the stomach slower than it would if the body were healthy. When this happens complain that they feel unduly bloated and “stuffed” after consuming only a modest meal, some feel full after only a few bites. While this discomfort is founded in a real physical condition, it does tend to subside once eating is normalized.
Those who vomit are at risk for internal bleeding, ulcers, and gastritis, a painful inflammation of the stomach lining. Vomiting can cause a painful swelling of the esophagus, and places undue stress on the stomach, both of which are at risk of rupturing, a condition which is fatal unless immediate medical attention is available. It also often causes tearing of the esophagus, and people will see streaks of blood in their vomit. Vomiting also causes enlarged parotid (salivary) glands sometimes described as “chipmunk cheeks,” loss of the gag reflex, and has been linked to the development of hiatal hernias.
Constipation is a common condition resulting from inadequate fiber and food intake. Some individuals have such reduced intestinal motility that medical attention is required. Laxative abuse and overly aggressive refeeding both pose a risk for bowel perforations, which may call for surgical intervention. The small intestine also frequently becomes ineffective in absorbing nutrients and minerals.