What is Pica?

I have the strangest cravings sometimes. I love chalk. That powdery substance smells so good. The smell of a musky basement makes my mouth water. Fine powdery dirt on a windy day makes me lick my lips. I used to think this was a completely normal human craving until some friends informed me that this is quite odd and indeed deviates from the human definition of normal. The craving for non nutritious substances is called Pica.

Since then I have learned that it is not completely known what causes pica, but some cases may be related to a mineral deficiency. I would believe this because after going on long runs or hikes, I generally crave chalk more.

However, it seems there are several different categories of pica that go into the realms of odd and strange. There are even names for the various forms of pica, which comprise such categories as the consumption of paper (xylophagia), glass (hyalophagia), or even feces (coprophagy). Luckily my cravings only consist of mineral-like substances.

Recently I had the chance to go to the Glore Psychiatric Museum in Missouri. There is a display there (and a picture of it on Wikipedia) that shows the contents that were found in the stomach of a psychiatric patient after an emergency surgery. Below is an image of the display, along with some of the descriptions.

pica3 pica2 pica1

Just to reiterate, this person had 1,446 metal objects inside them. While your stomach acid is strong, it does not act quickly enough to dissolve entire pieces of metal.

8 responses to “What is Pica?

  1. I am curious, as a scientist, do you know of any studies to address treatment of Pica? My son has a mild form–he mostly needs to chew on things and salt is a craving that causes him to eat the ice melting chemicals in winter. Which is very disturbing, since not all such products are salt. By the way, he was tested for ‘deficiencies’ and it was ruled out as a cause. Thank you.

    • I am actually not aware of too many specific studies that have been done with pica. I did a bit of looking around on the subject, but it seems there is a need for more research. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a background in medicine.

  2. I read of a similar suicide a few years ago. What a way to go.

  3. This is not as uncommon as you might think, at least in the American South. I was aware of it with a couple of my childhood friends. In one case, it was red clay, and the other was chalk.

  4. I can’t remember where, but I read an article about how in some areas it is common for pregnant women to eat dirt. I think they attributed it to the mineral deficiency and also because the alkalinity of the soil helped calm the stomach.

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