A diagnosis of anorexia nervosa occurs if the following are present:
- The person weighs at least 15 percent below what is considered normal for others of the same height and age
- The person misses at least three consecutive menstrual cycles (if a female of childbearing age)
- There is an intense fear of gaining weight
- The person refuses to maintain the minimal normal body weight
- There is a belief that he or she is overweight, although, in reality, this person is dangerously thin.
The first goal for the treatment of anorexia nervosa is to ensure the person's physical health, which involves restoring a healthy weight. Reaching this goal may require hospitalization. Once a person's physical condition is stable, treatment for anorexia usually involves individual psychotherapy and family therapy, during which parents help their child learn to eat again and maintain healthy eating habits on his or her own. Behavioral therapy also has been effective for helping a person with anorexia return to healthy eating habits. Supportive group therapy may follow, and self-help groups within communities may provide ongoing support.
(Click Anorexia Treatment for more information.)
Anorexia nervosa can slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure, increasing the chance of heart failure. Those who use drugs to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements, or urination are also at a high risk for heart failure. Starvation resulting from anorexia nervosa can lead to heart failure, as well as damage to the brain.
Anorexia nervosa may also cause hair and nails to grow brittle. Skin may dry out, become yellow, and develop a covering of soft hair called lanugo.
Mild anemia, swollen joints, reduced muscle mass, and light-headedness also commonly occur as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.
Severe cases of anorexia nervosa can lead to brittle bones that break easily as a result of calcium loss.