What Factors Influence Full Recovery from Anorexia Nervosa?

Teenage girl in despair over empty plate
Teenage girl in despair over empty plate. Getty Images/Cultura RM/Christoffer Askman

Anorexia nervosa is a serious illness that often has a long course. Although many people with anorexia nervosa fully recover, about one in five people with anorexia experiences a chronic form that may end in death or in severe medical complications.

Researchers and clinicians have looked for common factors that might help (or hinder) full recovery from anorexia. The factors they've identified can help professionals determine the best treatment in a particular case.

Below you'll find some of the factors that can influence whether or not someone will fully recover from anorexia nervosa.

Duration of Illness

One of the primary predictors for recovery from anorexia is a short duration of symptoms and illness prior to treatment. To put it simply, the longer a person has anorexia symptoms before beginning treatment and entering recovery, the more likely it is that the person's illness will become chronic or the person will have medical complications.

For this reason, it is extremely important that eating disorders be screened for in high-risk populations, and that parents and other caregivers do not ignore symptoms. Many patients do not believe they are ill and thus may not think they need treatment. Male patients and those from marginalized and underserved communities often don't receive treatment early in the illness.

Depression

Unfortunately, most people with eating disorders also have symptoms of one (or more) other mental disorders, including depression.

Within anorexia nervosa, there are people who experienced symptoms of depression prior to the onset of the eating disorder, and others who experienced these symptoms after their eating disorder started.

At least one research study has shown that those who had depression before anorexia nervosa have a higher likelihood of persistent and chronic eating disorder symptoms. It is important for treatment providers to identify and treat depression, as well as the eating disorder.

Relationship with Parents

Not surprisingly, research has shown that people who have a supportive and positive relationship with their parents are more likely to achieve recovery, while those who have a negative relationship or who have extremely critical parents are more likely to experience a chronic illness. It is important to recognize that families with a child with an eating disorder may appear to have a poor relationship when what is observed is really just their response to a crisis.

This underscores the importance of involving parents in the treatment process, whether through family therapy or through family-based treatment. Hopefully, difficult relationships can be improved through the treatment process.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

As with depression, many people with anorexia nervosa also experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) alongside their eating disorder.

Research studies have shown that co-existing OCD is linked with poorer outcomes in the recovery of anorexia nervosa. This again shows how important it is for treatment providers to screen for and address any additional issues being experienced by their clients.

Vomiting and Purging Behaviors

There is a subtype of anorexia nervosa in which sufferers engage in self-induced vomiting or other purging behaviors, similar to bulimia nervosa. Those patients who experience these symptoms, or have also been diagnosed with bulimia nervosa are more likely to experience a chronic eating disorder.

A Word from Verywell

Recovery from Anorexia is possible and it is never too late to recover. If you or someone you love has anorexia nervosa, please seek professional help.

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