Medical Director of Oliver-Pyatt Centers Joel Jahraus, MD, FAED, CEDS specializes in medical management of patients with eating disorders. He has been a board certified physician for over 30 years and is a recognized expert on diabetes and the medical complications of eating disorders. Dr. Jahraus shares his experience of treating patients with comorbid disorders. He explains how he uses a systematic approach in order to establish a strong rapport with the patient and then is able to assess and treat the complex case.
Over many years of treating medical complications of eating disorders I have watched an interesting trend of patients claiming to have more and more medical comorbid disorders. In fact it is not uncommon for me to see someone who says they struggle with food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, lactose deficiency and gluten enteropathy. This creates a complexity that is challenging to say the least. It requires a well-coordinated effort between medical and mental health clinicians to truly evaluate the validity of the medical illness claims and their integration with anxiety, depression and other comorbid mental health disorders as well as the eating disorder itself.
Fortunately relatively definitive and objective guidelines are available to assess each of the comorbid illnesses. Yet too often patients come in either self-diagnosed or without a complete work up and have fully come to believe that they indeed have a food allergy or IBS. In addition there are often family issues related to medical disorders where the individual is told to even expect that they will have these disorders due to family history of the same. Given the typical challenges of refeeding with gastrointestinal symptoms and heightened anxiety this can easily throw the patient’s recovery off course. I have found that there are several caveats that will set the stage for a better-informed patient and family that often mitigates some of the challenges of refeeding. Education is power and food is medicine so I begin with that premise. Then I use a systematic approach to build trust with the patient as we progress through a workup:
1. I validate the patient’s concerns and reassure them that I will be sure to evaluate their physical concerns and help them understand physical versus emotional symptoms and how these symptoms are related to each other. I provide examples of emotional symptoms causing physical illness like stress and anxiety causing high blood pressure or stomach ulcers. I want them to understand that I am not dismissing their symptoms as “just emotional” but rather that finding their true cause will allow us to help them feel better whatever the cause.
2. I review the work up (or lack of one) regarding each condition and then outline what is needed to be complete and have an accurate diagnosis. I also tell them that even if they do have a physiologic medical illness it may well improve with achieving a healthy body weight and maintaining healthy nutrition and healthy eating habits while eliminating eating disorder symptoms.
3. I order appropriate consultations and testing as indicated and review the results with the individual outlining both medical and psychological treatments that will help them including the use of stress relaxation and medical and psychiatric medications whether prescription or over-the-counter meds including nutriceuticals and complimentary therapies.
4. I assure the individual that we will proceed through treatment with regularly scheduled appointments for follow up so they don’t need to worry that they are simply being dismissed.
With this approach I have had significant success in evaluating and treating these increasingly complex cases. We all know how rewarding it can be to have an individual so restricted by the complex medical and psychiatric illnesses associated with eating disorders to suddenly find new life and relief from the burdens of physical and emotional pain and worry!
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