Complications of Bulimia
studies report that patients with bulimia that is not accompanied by severe weight loss have a much better outlook than
patients with anorexia. Some studies have suggested that between 60 -80% of bulimic patients are in remission within3months
of treatment. However, relapse is common and over half of women with bulimia continue to battle disordered eating habits
for years. In one study, bulimia itself persisted in 10 - 25% of patients after treatment.
Direct Adverse Effects of Bulimic Behavior on the Body
problems are directly associated with bulimic behavior, including:
erosion, cavities, and gum problems
- Water retention, swelling, and abdominal
- Acute stomach distress
- Fluid loss with low potassium levels (due to excessive vomiting or laxative use; can lead to extreme weakness,
near paralysis, or lethal heart rhythms)
- Irregular periods
- Swallowing problems and esophagus damage
vomiting causes repetitive assaults on the esophagus (the food pipe) from forced vomiting. It is not clear, however, if
swallowing problems are common.
| The esophagus connects the nose and mouth with the stomach. The epiglottis folds over the trachea when a swallow
occurs, to prevent the swallowed substance from being inhaled into the lungs. When a person is unable to swallow because
of illness or coma, a tube may be inserted either through the mouth or nose, past the epiglottis, through the esophagus
and into the stomach. Nutrients pass directly through the tube into the stomach.|
- Rupture of the esophagus, or food pipe
rectal walls (rare, but serious condition that requires surgery)
have been mixed on the long-term health consequences for bulimic people who maintain normal weight and who do not go on to
become anorexic. Some report no major problems. A 2002 study, however, reported that eating disorders during adolescence
put these young people at risk for a variety of psychologic and medical problems later on, even in those without severe
eating disorders. Health problemsincluded circulatory disorders (such as high blood pressure), neurologic symptoms (such
as seizures), chronic fatigue, headache, frequent flus and colds, and insomnia. Even worse, only 22% of the subjects had
received any psychiatric treatment. The study did not break down specific eating disorders, but related the health problems
with specific behaviors.
Furthermore, another 2002 study reported that bulimic patients were at higher risk for bone fractures. (The risk
was lower than with anorexia and, unlike in anorexia, it returned to normal within a year of diagnosis and treatment.)
In all cases, patients who have both bulimia and anorexia are in greatest danger of health
Long-Term Psychiatric Problems
In the 2002 study mentioned above, eating disorders, even with normal weight, were associated with a higher risk
for anxiety and depressive disorders and with suicide attempts.
Most pregnant women with a history of eating disorders have
healthy pregnancies, although they face higher risks for a number of complications, including cesarean sections, postpartum
depression, miscarriages, and complicated deliveries. Their babies may also have a higher risk for low birth weight, prematurity,
A 2004 study of women who had been previously hospitalized
for eating disorders found that their risk of pre-term delivery was increased by 70-80%, and their chance of having a low
birth weight infant doubled. Another study found that women with past or current eating disorders faced an increased risk
of delivering babies that were small for gestational age and had smaller-than-normal head circumference.
A number of self-destructive
behaviors occur with bulimia:
- Smoking. Many teenage girls
with eating disorders smoke because it is thought to help prevent weight gain.
- Impulsive Behaviors. Women with bulimia are at higher-than-average risk for dangerous impulsive behaviors,
such as sexual promiscuity, self-cutting, and kleptomania. Some studies have reported such behaviors in half of those with
- Alcohol and Substance Abuse. An estimated 30 - 70%
of patients with bulimia abuse alcohol, drugs, or both. This rate is higher than that of the general population and for people
with anorexia. It should be noted, however, that this higher rate of substance abuse may be a distortion because studies
are conducted only on diagnosed patients. Bulimia tends not to get diagnosed. And reports of bulimia in the community (where
the incidence of the eating disorder is higher than statistics suggest) indicate that substance abuse is actually lower
than in people with anorexia.
Abuse of Over-the-Counter Medications
Women with bulimia frequently abuse over-the-counter medications, such as laxatives, appetite
suppressants, diuretics, and drugs that induce vomiting (e.g., ipecac). None of these drugs is without risk. For example,
ipecac poisonings have been reported, and some people become dependent on laxatives for normal bowel functioning. Diet pills,
even herbal and over-the-counter medications, can be hazardous, particularly if they are abused.
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