Although eating disorders are on the psychiatric spectrum, they can have serious associated medical complications. Patients with eating disorders may present with complaints common to the emergency department such as abdominal pain, chest pain, syncope, or palpitations, but management of these conditions in eating disordered patients can pose a challenge. This issue provides a systems-based approach to the history, physical examination, evaluation, and treatment of acute complications of eating disorders, with a specific focus on the pathophysiology and management differences between an otherwise healthy patient and a patient with an eating disorder.
A 14-year-old girl with no known medical problems presents to the ED with worsening epigastric pain for 3 days. The girl says the pain worsens after eating. The patient denies associated symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, dysuria, and fever. The patient also denies alcohol consumption, drug use, and sexual activity. Her vital signs are: heart rate, 55 beats/min; blood pressure, 90/50 mm Hg; respiratory rate, 18 breaths/min; and oxygen saturation, 100% on room air. On physical examination, you notice the patient has dry mucous membranes, discolored teeth, and a few scarred callouses on the dorsum of her right hand; the examination is otherwise normal. You are concerned about the patient’s vital signs, perplexed as to why she is not tachycardic despite her low blood pressure, and somewhat surprised that she is denying emesis or diarrhea, given her low blood pressure. You tell the patient’s parents that you will order fluids and some basic laboratory tests and then reassess. About 30 minutes later, the nurse calls you into the room because the patient's oxygen saturation has decreased to 85%, and she is in respiratory distress after completion of the fluid bolus. On auscultation, you hear diffuse crackles bilaterally. You place the patient on bilevel positive airway pressure and perform a bedside ultrasound that shows B-lines in bilateral lungs suggestive of pulmonary edema. A portable chest x-ray also shows evidence of pulmonary edema. Why did this patient rapidly develop pulmonary edema? Did the bolus worsen her condition? What diagnoses should be considered? Are there questions that you should ask the patient privately?
A previously healthy 17-year-old boy presents via ambulance after an episode of syncope during track practice. Per EMS, the patient was getting ready to start practice when he fell to the ground. His coach told them that the boy blacked out for a few seconds, but still had a pulse and did not stop breathing. The boy’s vital signs on arrival to the ED are: heart rate, 60 beats/min, but irregular; blood pressure, 90/50 mm Hg; respiratory rate, 18 breaths/min; temperature, 37°C (98.6°F); and oxygen saturation, 100% on room air. The review of systems is otherwise unremarkable. You are told that the boy’s parents are on their way to the hospital. The patient denies a prior history of syncopal episodes and reports that he remembered his heart was pounding, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground and his coach was standing over him. The boy reports intermittent episodes of palpitations recently, but he denies drug use. He admits he has been stressed about winning an upcoming track meet to secure a scholarship to college and believes the palpitations are secondary to stress. He also reports strict dieting and an increased workout regimen over the past few months. You are concerned about a possible underlying eating disorder, so you use the SCOFF questions as a screening tool. The patient answers “yes" to 2 of the 5 questions on the SCOFF questionnaire. How should the results of the questionnaire guide your diagnosis and the management of this patient? What studies should you order?
The lifetime prevalence of eating disorders in adolescents is 2.7%.1 Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, specifically, have a lifetime prevalence of 0.5% to 1% and 1% to 3%, respectively. Between 10% and 50% of female teenagers report occasional binge eating and purging behaviors.2 Eating disorders are more common among females than males; anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa occur at a 10:1 female-to-male ratio.3,4 Although eating disorders are not as common as other mental illnesses, they are associated with the highest mortality rates, when compared with other psychiatric disorders.5 In a 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, in which a longitudinal assessment of mortality was conducted, 2.8% of subjects with an eating disorder died of medical causes, followed by suicide (0.7%), substance use-related causes (0.5%), and traumatic causes (0.5%).6
Patients with undiagnosed eating disorders can present with complaints that are common to the emergency department (ED), such as abdominal pain, chest pain, syncope, and/or palpitations. This can make it difficult for the emergency clinician to recognize that these complaints arise from an underlying eating disorder. Likewise, many of the characteristic physical examination findings in patients with eating disorders are easily missed unless the clinician has a high index of suspicion. Failure to recognize an underlying eating disorder can lead to mismanagement and increased mortality if the cause of the complication is not determined and treated.
Managing a patient with a known diagnosis of an eating disorder can also be difficult for emergency clinicians. In a study that examined how comfortable residents from different specialties (including emergency medicine and pediatrics) felt when managing patients with a known eating disorder, participants reported comfort with assessment of these patients but not with management.7
This issue of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Practice outlines the diagnostic criteria for eating disorders, reviews the common—and sometimes subtle—physical examination findings associated with eating disorders, highlights physiologic differences between patients with eating disorders and healthy patients, and discusses the ED management of acute medical complications of eating disorders in pediatric patients.
A literature search was conducted using PubMed; the search terms included emergency care of eating disorders in pediatric patients, emergency care of anorexia and pediatric patients, emergency care of bulimia and pediatric patients, management of eating disorders in the emergency department of pediatric patients, medical complications of eating disorders in pediatric patients, and acute complications of eating disorders in pediatric patients. Abstracts and articles cited within the publications were also reviewed.
Literature on the management of eating disorders in the ED is lacking, especially in the pediatric population. A total of 38 articles were reviewed: 16 review articles, 9 case reports, 5 case-control studies, 1 retrospective study, 1 cross-sectional study, 3 survey studies, 1 comparative study, 1 meta-analysis, and 1 longitudinal study. The greatest limitation of this literature is that the majority of evidence on the management of emergent complications of eating disorders is from case reports and expert clinical opinion.
1. “I thought he was dehydrated, so I gave him a fluid bolus, and he decompensated.”
Patients with eating disorders may present with hypotension and/or syncope due to an underlying cardiomyopathy rather than dehydration. A large fluid bolus, though indicated if the problem is dehydration, may cause the patient to develop flash pulmonary edema from decompensated heart failure.
3. “He said his palpitations were from anxiety, so I didn’t investigate further.”
Though eating disorders are on the psychiatric spectrum, they do have medical complications. Various arrhythmias, including long QT syndrome, are associated with eating disorders and can worsen with electrolyte shifts or certain medications.
6. “She denied having an eating disorder. How was I expected to diagnose it?”
Examination findings for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can be subtle and require a high level of suspicion and detailed examination. The mouth and hands should be examined carefully for signs of purging. Lanugo and dry skin can be an indicator of fasting.
Evidence-based medicine requires a critical appraisal of the literature based upon study methodology and number of subjects. Not all references are equally robust. The findings of a large, prospective, randomized, and blinded trial should carry more weight than a case report.
To help the reader judge the strength of each reference, pertinent information about the study is included in bold type following the reference, where available. In addition, the most informative references cited in this paper, as determined by the author, are highlighted.
Stacey Ernest, MD; Heather M. Kuntz, MD
Susan Fraymovich, DO; Kimberly Nordstrom, MD, JD
February 2, 2020
March 2, 2023
4 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits™, 4 ACEP Category I Credits, 4 AAP Prescribed Credits, 4 AOA Category 2-A or 2-B Credits.
Date of Original Release: February 1, 2020. Date of most recent review: January 15, 2020. Termination date: February 1, 2023.
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