Special Correspondent

COIMBATORE: Surgeons at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital recently removed a mass of hair from the stomach of a 15-year-old girl. They said, she had been eating hair since she was four-years-old because of a psychological disorder called trichophagia. The disorder is described as compulsive eating of hair.

People with this largely unnoticed disorder chewed on long hair that was still attached to the head and then swallowed. The hair accumulated in the gastrointestinal tract causing symptoms such as indigestion and stomach pain. A purgative can be given to induce the trichobezoar (hairball in the stomach) to come out.

The girl was brought to the hospital with a complaint of severe abdominal pain and vomiting. The surgeons removed a mass of hair that weighed more than two kg. It had been occupying almost the entire stomach. Doctors said the patient had recovered and was having a normal intake of food. She was also being provided with counselling to prevent her from eating hair again.

In this girl's case, it was puzzling to note that the problem was detected and severe symptoms showed up only 11 years after she first began eating her hair.

Hospital Dean T.P. Kalaniti explained that some amount of hair might have been regularly passing out through the normal digestive process. The churning of the stomach turned the accumulated hair into a ball. When it filled the stomach, it brought down appetite in the girl. In such instances, the abdominal pain could be mistaken as one induced by lack of food intake and not by the ball of hair. The Dean said if such abnormal eating habits were found in children, the parents should immediately consult a psychiatrist. It could occur even among adults. This called for monitoring at home by the spouses or by colleagues at the workplace.

Apart from trichophagia, one must watch out for another disorder called pica. People with pica craved for non-food items such as dirt, clay, paint chips, plaster, chalk, baking soda, cigarette ashes, burnt match heads, cigarette butts, and rust. They sometimes even had an appetite for glue, buttons, paper, sand, toothpaste, soap, oyster shells, and broken crockery. Dr. Kalaniti pointed out that pica could be worm-induced. Children with worm infection ate dirt or chalk. It could even be seasonal as in the case of pregnant women, such as craving for tamarind. But, it acquired irresistible proportions in people who did not fall in either of these categories but ate the non-food items regularly. "Monitoring and early psychological intervention will help in such cases," the Dean said.

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