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Medical Complications | The Center for Eating Disorders | Baltimore, Maryland

Eating Disorders Have Serious Medical Complications and We Have the Expertise to Respond


Eating Disorders rank among the most serious public health concerns in the United States and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  Despite the risks, only about 10% of those affected get the treatment they need.  At the Center for Eating Disorders, treatment involves a specially trained interdisciplinary team of professionals and close monitoring of patients’ physical health and safety.

Eating disorders are real, complex and destructive illnesses that can have serious consequences for an individual’s emotional well-being, social relationships, and physical health.

The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the more likely they are to recover emotionally and physically. Below are just some of the medical complications that can result from eating disorder behaviors.

Anorexia Nervosa Complications

In anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. The body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, resulting in serious acute and long-term medical consequences including:

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure
  • Damage to the structure and function of the heart; increased risk of heart failure and death
  • Reduction of bone density (osteopenia and osteoporosis) which results in dry, brittle bones
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Fainting, fatigue, lethargy and overall weakness
  • Dry skin and hair, brittle hair and nails, hair loss
  • Anemia (can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, increased infections, and heart palpitations)
  • Severe constipation
  • Prepubertal patients may have arrested sexual maturity and growth failure.
  • Drop in internal body temperature, with subsequent growth of a downy layer of hair called “lanugo,” which is the body’s effort to keep itself warm
  • Amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle)
  • Infertility, increased rates of miscarriage and other fetal complications

Read more about anorexia nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa Complications

The recurrent binge-and-purge cycles of bulimia can affect the entire digestive system. They can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in the body that affect the heart and other major organ functions. While more common than anorexia, bulimia nervosa may be more difficult for primary care physicians, school officials, parents and other loved ones to detect because patients are often of normal weight and may be too embarrassed to directly reveal their abnormal eating behaviors.  Some of the health consequences of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances (dangerous levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals). This can lead to irregular heartbeats, possible heart failure and death.
  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus
  • Potential for gastric rupture
  • Decalcification of teeth, enamel loss, staining, severe tooth decay and gum disease as a result of repeated exposure to stomach acid
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Chronic irregular bowel movements, constipation and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis
  • Swollen, enlarged salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Acid reflux disorder
  • Infertility, increased rates of miscarriage and other fetal complications

Read more about bulimia nervosa

Binge Eating Disorder Complications

Binge eating disorder (BED) is much more prevalent than either anorexia or bulimia.  BED often results in many of the same health risks associated with clinical obesity yet people with BED can be of normal weight. Some of the potential health consequences of BED include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease as a result of elevated triglyceride levels
  • Type II diabetes mellitus
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Kidney disease
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Arthritis (degenerative) - caused by hormonal imbalances and vitamin deficiencies as well as increased stress on the joints
  • Infertility
  • Various forms of cancer
  • Increased rates of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia and insomnia have also been reported

Read more about binge eating disorder

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)

It’s a common misconception that the EDNOS diagnosis is not as serious or does not warrant the same level of concern as the other eating disorder diagnoses discussed above.  In reality, all of the same medical problems can be experienced by those with EDNOS who are acting on various eating disorder symptoms.  In fact, recent research  has actually shown that the associated mortality rate for EDNOS exceeds the rates for both anorexia and bulimia.

Read more about EDNOS

Eating Disorders & Suicide

Suicide accounts for a significant number of eating disorder deaths.  Those struggling with eating disorders are more likely than individuals without eating disorders to think about suicide and attempt suicide.  The suicide rate for women with eating disorders is 58 times greater than those without (Herzog et al, 2000).

The health risks associated with eating disorders increase over time with the duration of the illness.  However, even individuals in the early stages of illness and those who look and feel well are still at risk.  Normal labwork results should not alleviate or minimize concerns about medical risk for any patient with an eating disorder.

Are you or a loved one experiencing any of the above medical complications? Don’t wait to seek help.  Call (410) 938-5252 today to find out about treatment options at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.

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