There are numerous complications that can occur in patients with anorexia nervosa, which can sometimes be fatal. Most of the complications are associated with severe malnourishment, which can cause damage to every organ and system in the body.
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In some cases, the damage may be permanent, even when the condition is being managed appropriately and is under control. Given the potential severity of complications associated with anorexia nervosa, it is important that anyone with signs or symptoms of the condition receives medical attention to help them on their path to recovery.
Anorexia nervosa is often associated with psychological disorders such as:
- Personality disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Alcohol and substance misuse
Further stemming from this, these disorders carry an increased risk of self-harm and suicidal behavior.
There are a number of hormonal changes that can occur in individuals with anorexia nervosa, sometimes with severe and permanent effects. These changes may include reduced estrogen and testosterone levels in women and men, respectively. Estrogen, in particular, is important for the health of the heart and bones and a reduction in the level of the hormone can lead to related complications.
Anorexia nervosa can also cause a reduction in dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), thyroid hormone, and growth hormone levels. Additionally, this health condition can cause a rise in stress hormone levels. Resulting from these hormonal changes, affected individuals may experience a reduced sex drive and, in women, temporary loss of menstruation (amenorrhea), or permanent infertility.
Complications of the cardiovascular system are the most common cause of death associated with anorexia nervosa. Arrhythmias and imbalances of electrolytes in the blood can both be fatal in severe cases, as they can affect the function of the heart and affect the normal rhythm of the heartbeat.
Other complications involving the heart include:
- Reduce heart muscle
- Imbalance of electrolytes, particularly potassium, calcium, magnesium, or phosphate
Nearly 9 in 10 women with anorexia nervosa experience a loss of calcium in the bones, known as osteopenia. Likewise, 40% of patients go on to develop osteoporosis, which is a severe loss of bone density that is linked to a higher risk of bone fractures later in life.
These musculoskeletal changes are closely linked to the changes in estrogen, as this hormone usually helps to strengthen the bone. However, other factors may also play a role, such as reduced DHEA, high stress hormone levels, and lower dietary intake of calcium. The changes in DHEA and growth hormones can also affect the stature of children and adolescents with the condition.
Damage to any organ of the body can occur due to malnourishment and an inability to sustain the function. This often includes damage to the kidney or liver, which can be permanent.
In some cases, anorexia nervosa can affect the central nervous system, which can lead to neurological disorders, such as seizures. Some individuals may also suffer from problems of concentration and memory.
Complications for pregnant women
For pregnant women who suffer or are recovering from anorexia nervosa, there are a number of additional risks. These include a higher likelihood of:
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Caesarean section
Additionally, the new mother will be more likely to suffer from postpartum depression.
Potentially fatal complications
Death associated with anorexia nervosa may occur suddenly, even when it is not immediately evident that the patient is severely underweight. Potentially fatal complications include:
- Arrhythmias (abnormal rhythm of the heart)
- Electrolyte imbalance of sodium, potassium, or calcium ions
Given the severity of the complications associated with anorexia nervosa, it is essential that the condition is diagnosed and managed as soon as possible to prevent adverse outcomes.