If your doctor suspects that you have anorexia nervosa, he or she will typically do several tests and exams to help pinpoint a diagnosis, rule out medical causes for the weight loss, and check for any related complications.
These exams and tests generally include:
- Physical exam. This may include measuring your height and weight; checking your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature; checking your skin and nails for problems; listening to your heart and lungs; and examining your abdomen.
- Lab tests. These may include a complete blood count (CBC) and more-specialized blood tests to check electrolytes and protein as well as functioning of your liver, kidney and thyroid. A urinalysis also may be done.
- Psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health professional will likely ask about your thoughts, feelings and eating habits. You may also be asked to complete psychological self-assessment questionnaires.
- Other studies. X-rays may be taken to check your bone density, check for stress fractures or broken bones, or check for pneumonia or heart problems. Electrocardiograms may be done to look for heart irregularities.
Your mental health professional also may use the diagnostic criteria for anorexia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Treatment for anorexia is generally done using a team approach, which includes doctors, mental health professionals and dietitians, all with experience in eating disorders. Ongoing therapy and nutrition education are highly important to continued recovery.
Here's a look at what's commonly involved in treating people with anorexia.
Hospitalization and other programs
If your life is in immediate danger, you may need treatment in a hospital emergency room for such issues as a heart rhythm disturbance, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances or a psychiatric emergency. Hospitalization may be required for medical complications, severe psychiatric problems, severe malnutrition or continued refusal to eat.
Some clinics specialize in treating people with eating disorders. They may offer day programs or residential programs rather than full hospitalization. Specialized eating disorder programs may offer more-intensive treatment over longer periods of time.
Because of the host of complications anorexia causes, you may need frequent monitoring of vital signs, hydration level and electrolytes, as well as related physical conditions. In severe cases, people with anorexia may initially require feeding through a tube that's placed in their nose and goes to the stomach (nasogastric tube).
Care is usually coordinated by a primary care doctor or a mental health professional, with other professionals involved.
Restoring a healthy weight
The first goal of treatment is getting back to a healthy weight. You can't recover from anorexia without returning to a healthy weight and learning proper nutrition. Those involved in this process may include:
- Your primary care doctor, who can provide medical care and supervise your calorie needs and weight gain
- A psychologist or other mental health professional, who can work with you to develop behavioral strategies to help you return to a healthy weight
- A dietitian, who can offer guidance getting back to regular patterns of eating, including providing specific meal plans and calorie requirements that help you meet your weight goals
- Your family, who will likely be involved in helping you maintain normal eating habits
These types of therapy may be beneficial for anorexia:
- Family-based therapy. This is the only evidence-based treatment for teenagers with anorexia. Because the teenager with anorexia is unable to make good choices about eating and health while in the grips of this serious condition, this therapy mobilizes parents to help their child with re-feeding and weight restoration until the child can make good choices about health.
- Individual therapy. For adults, cognitive behavioral therapy — specifically enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy — has been shown to help. The main goal is to normalize eating patterns and behaviors to support weight gain. The second goal is to help change distorted beliefs and thoughts that maintain restrictive eating.
No medications are approved to treat anorexia because none has been found to work very well. However, antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can help treat other mental health disorders you may also have, such as depression or anxiety.
Treatment challenges in anorexia
One of the biggest challenges in treating anorexia is that people may not want treatment. Barriers to treatment may include:
- Thinking you don't need treatment
- Fearing weight gain
- Not seeing anorexia as an illness but rather a lifestyle choice
People with anorexia can recover. However, they're at increased risk of relapse during periods of high stress or during triggering situations. Ongoing therapy or periodic appointments during times of stress may help you stay healthy.
Lifestyle and home remedies
When you have anorexia, it can be difficult to take care of yourself properly. In addition to professional treatment, follow these steps:
- Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions and try not to stray from meal plans, even if they make you uncomfortable.
- Talk to your doctor about appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements. If you're not eating well, chances are your body isn't getting all of the nutrients it needs, such as Vitamin D or iron. However, getting most of your vitamins and minerals from food is typically recommended.
- Don't isolate yourself from caring family members and friends who want to see you get healthy. Understand that they have your best interests at heart.
- Resist urges to weigh yourself or check yourself in the mirror frequently. These may do nothing but fuel your drive to maintain unhealthy habits.
Dietary supplements and herbal products designed to suppress the appetite or aid in weight loss may be abused by people with anorexia. Weight-loss supplements or herbs can have serious side effects and dangerously interact with other medications. These products do not go through a rigorous review process and may have ingredients that are not posted on the bottle.
Keep in mind that natural doesn't always mean safe. If you use dietary supplements or herbs, discuss the potential risks with your doctor.
Anxiety-reducing approaches that complement anorexia treatment may increase the sense of well-being and promote relaxation. Examples of these approaches include massage, yoga and meditation.
Coping and support
You may find it difficult to cope with anorexia when you're hit with mixed messages by the media, culture, and perhaps your own family or friends. You may even have heard people joke that they wish they could have anorexia for a while so that they could lose weight.
Whether you have anorexia or your loved one has anorexia, ask your doctor or mental health professional for advice on coping strategies and emotional support. Learning effective coping strategies and getting the support you need from family and friends are vital to successful treatment.
Preparing for your appointment
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor or mental health professional.
You may want to ask a family member or friend to go with you. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot. A family member may also be able to give your doctor a fuller picture of your home life.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for the appointment. Try to recall when your symptoms began.
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- All medications, vitamins, herbal products, over-the-counter medications and other supplements that you're taking, and their dosages.
- Questions to ask your doctor so that you'll remember to cover everything you wanted to.
Some questions you might want to ask your doctor or mental health professional include:
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor or mental health professional is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- How long have you been worried about your weight?
- Do you exercise? How often?
- What ways have you used to lose weight?
- Are you having any physical symptoms?
- Have you ever vomited because you were uncomfortably full?
- Have others expressed concern that you're too thin?
- Do you think about food often?
- Do you ever eat in secret?
- Have any of your family members ever had symptoms of an eating disorder or been diagnosed with an eating disorder?
Be ready to answer these questions to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on.