Rare Medical Manifestations of Severe Restricting and Purging: “Zebras,” Missed Diagnoses, and Best Practices

International Journal of Eating Disorders
By Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS


Objective: Medical problems that arise due to severe restricting and/or purging may be misdiagnosed or suboptimally treated, from outpatient clinics to top medical hospitals. A symptom may be presumed to be a psychological manifestation of the eating disorder and inappropriately dismissed for further medical evaluation. Alternatively, a detailed medical workup may be performed, overlooking a classic relationship between starvation and a physical finding, which delays referral to eating disorder care. This review article focuses on rare medical issues (also called "zebras" in medical training), diagnoses that may be missed in patients with eating disorders, and best practices for management, organized by organ system.

Method: A PubMed search was performed, using search terms "eating disorder," "anorexia nervosa," and "bulimia nervosa" in combination with different words for each organ system and known medical manifestations of severe eating disorders, with high quality and relevant studies from the past 20 years cited.

Discussion: Adults with eating disorders may present with extreme organ dysfunction and atypical signs and symptoms of typical medical problems. Timely diagnosis, risk awareness, appropriate treatment, and avoidance of harm are all vital. With judicious management and nutritional rehabilitation, most of these complications will significantly improve or resolve.

Written by

Philip S. Mehler, MD, FACP, FAED, CEDS

Dr. Philip S. Mehler began his career at Denver Health more than 35 years ago and was formerly its Chief of Internal Medicine and then Denver Health’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) until he was promoted…

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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