Most people have pulled out gray hair, picked a scab, or even bit a nail, whether out of boredom or to relieve a negative emotion.
In rare cases, this activity can be accompanied by autocannibalism, in which a person may eat that hair, scab, or nail.
Autocannibalism is a mental health disorder that’s primarily characterized by the compulsion to eat oneself.
It should be noted, however, that the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize this disorder as a diagnosable mental health disorder.
In this article, we’ll explore the underlying causes of autocannibalism, as well as the different types of autocannibalism and how they’re treated.
What is autocannibalism?
Autocannibalism, also known as self-cannibalism or autosarcophagy, is a form of cannibalism that involves the practice of eating oneself.
Most forms aren’t extreme
Most people who practice autocannibalism don’t engage in extreme self-cannibalism. Instead, the more common forms include eating things like:
Many are classified as body-focused repetitive behaviors
Many types of autocannibalism are classified as body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs).
BFRBs are more severe than the passive habit of biting one’s nails when nervous, for example. BFRBs are repetitive self-grooming behaviors that can cause actual damage to the body.
Some may be linked to anxiety or depression
Autocannibalism and BFRBs are complex disorders that are often linked to underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
They can also accompany other conditions that involve impulse control, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or pica.
Are there different types of autocannibalism?
The most serious form of autocannibalism is eating entire body parts. However, this type of autocannibalism is so rare that little research exists on it.
Other mental health conditions that can be classified as autocannibalism include:
- Allotriophagia, also known as pica, happens when a person eats items that have no nutritional value. These can include relatively harmless nonfood items such as ice or more harmful items such as paint chips.
- Onychophagia is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to eat the nails. Unlike the anxious habit of nail-biting, this condition causes considerable damage to the fingernails.
- Dermatophagia is characterized by eating the skin on the fingers or hands. This condition is more serious than simply picking at a hangnail, and it often leads to skin that is damaged and bleeding.
- Trichophagia, or Rapunzel syndrome, happens when a person feels compelled to eat their own hair. Since hair can’t be digested, this can lead to blockages or infections in the digestive tract.
If left untreated, autocannibalism can lead to scarring, infections, and in some cases, severe complications that may cause death.
What are the signs and symptoms of autocannibalism?
Autocannibalism can develop as a side effect of certain mental health conditions or as a secondary habit due to an unmanaged BFRB.
Signs of autocannibalism may differ depending on the type and severity of the disorder. These include:
Damage to the body
All types of autocannibalism can cause damage to the body, such as:
- nerve damage
Autocannibalism can also cause accompanying gastrointestinal symptoms, including:
- stomach ulcers
- blood in the stool
- blockages or damage to the GI tract
Anxiety or distress
Autocannibalism may be accompanied by feelings of anxiety or distress before, during, and after the compulsion.
A person may experience feelings of anxiety or tension that can only be eased by the compulsion. They might also feel pleasure or relief after the compulsion, as well as embarrassment or shame because of the disorder.
Are there underlying causes of autocannibalism?
Although there’s little research on the exact causes of autocannibalism, the underlying causes of BFRBs may relate to those that cause autocannibalism. They include:
- Genetics. Research suggests that there’s an inherited component to the development of BFRBs. It’s suggested that having a family member with a BFRB may increase your risk of developing a similar condition.
- Age. Some conditions that cause autocannibalism are more likely to appear in childhood. For example, one case study
- describes a condition called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (LNS), which appears around age 1 with symptoms of autocannibalism.
- Emotions. A variety of emotions are thought to be underlying triggers for BFRBs. In one small study, researchers found that boredom, frustration, and impatience played a significant role in triggering BFRBs in the study group.
- Mental illness. There are only a handful of case studies on the condition. For example, one case study
- reports autocannibalism in a 29-year-old individual with a history of psychosis and substance misuse.
While there’s a connection between certain BFRBs and autocannibalism, more research is needed on the underlying causes of this condition.
How is autocannibalism treated?
With so little research on autocannibalism, the treatment options for this condition rely primarily on those that have found to be effective for BFRBs.
These treatment options include therapy, medication, and alternative therapies.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that’s effective for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and BFRBs.
This type of therapy focuses on how your thoughts affect your behaviors and moods and how to adjust those thoughts and beliefs in a positive way.
Habit reversal training (HRT), a subset of CBT, may prove beneficial for specific conditions like autocannibalism.
When autocannibalism accompanies an underlying psychiatric disorder such as anxiety or OCD, medication can be used in combination with therapy.
The most common medications for these types of mental health conditions are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or tricyclic antidepressants, such as:
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- citalopram (Celexa)
- escitalopram (Lexapro)
It can take some time to find the right medication and dosage for your exact condition, so good communication and follow-up with your doctor is important.
While CBT and medication are the most effective treatment for conditions like autocannibalism, some people choose to incorporate alternative therapies.
Research has suggested that mindfulness can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by bringing the thought process back to the present.
For people with autocannibalism, practicing mindful techniques may help to reduce compulsions.
Other alternative approaches, such as massage therapy or acupuncture, can provide physical relief for some of the symptoms of autocannibalism and BFRBs.
These types of therapies have also been thought to provide more therapeutic benefits, but more research is still needed.