A Look at Medical Treatments for Anorexia Nervosa

Without treatment, anorexia nervosa can cause serious health problems and even put the client’s life at risk. In fact, this condition has the highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions. Food restriction and weight loss leave the brain and body without what it needs to thrive, causing a host of health problems from depression to heart disease.

As this occurs, people need to receive quality medical care during treatment to become fully recovered. They need to receive care not only for anorexia nervosa, but all the other co-occurring health conditions that arise with it.

Thankfully, comprehensive care that addresses all these areas is available from treatment centers staffed by fully-recovered individuals. They know just what it takes to help people recover from this eating disorder and move on with their lives. Here’s what clients can expect from these medical treatment teams while under their care.

Initial Examination

While enrolled in a comprehensive eating disorder treatment center, clients are provided with well-rounded care that addresses their physical and mental health needs. Doctors, nurses, and other clinicians work alongside psychiatrists to provide the ideal level of care, which starts with regular checkups and consistent medical oversight.

At the initial health check, doctors will discuss the client’s personal and family health history to start to understand their care needs. They will also perform a physical examination and assess their current health to create a treatment plan. During this appointment, they will be looking for common medical complications caused by anorexia nervosa to ensure the client receives the right level of care.

Lab Tests and Imaging

Depending on the client’s health history and exam findings, doctors may elect to perform lab tests and imaging as well. To perform these tests, clients may need to provide urine and blood samples. These samples will head down to the lab for testing to determine if there is a need for additional medical care.

Urine and Blood Tests

Lab techs will test the urine sample to assess the health of the kidneys and other organs. They may look for protein in the urine and other telltale signs of a problem. The urine sample will also tell the doctors how hydrated the client is and if their pH is in the right range. This test can be performed in just a few hours, providing doctors with a quick look at the client’s need for care.

Although it takes a bit longer, the blood samples will provide a more complete picture of the client’s health. Using the provided samples, the lab will perform a complete blood count, which helps doctors find if their client is anemic or suffering from several other health conditions. Also, they will check hormone levels to show the overall function of the thyroid and other organs.

They will also complete a comprehensive metabolic panel to show:

  • Fluid balance
  • Electrolytes
  • Glucose
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Liver enzymes
  • Blood urea nitrogen

With a look at the results of this test, doctors can assess their client’s health and determine if they have damage to their liver and kidneys.

Bone Scans

Anorexia nervosa can have a serious impact on bone health, increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis. As malnutrition leaves bones without the building blocks they need to stay healthy, their structure grows brittle and loses its internal strength. This increases the risk of fractures and can lead to a lifetime of pain.

For that reason, doctors will check their client’s bone mineral density using a bone scan to assess their current health and future risks. This scan uses nuclear imaging techniques to light up the entire bone structure, allowing doctors to see deep inside.

To perform this test, nuclear tracers are injected into a vein in the arm, then given several hours to work through the body. After that, clients are taken back for the scan, which can take about an hour. They will lie still on a table as the imaging equipment passes overhead and records the results of the test. Doctors receive the results several days later after a radiologist has taken the time to review them in full.

Treatment Plan

With the results of the physical exam, lab tests, and imaging procedures, doctors can build a treatment plan for their clients. The treatment plan will address the health complications caused by anorexia nervosa along with any other conditions the client has.

By making sure their clients have support for all co-occurring conditions, doctors can support their journey toward becoming fully recovered. With that, clients can focus on working through the levels of the treatment program without worry about their health.


While at an eating disorder treatment center, clients may be prescribed medication to manage or treat their medical conditions. If they have high blood pressure, for example, they may be prescribed medication to keep their levels in check and prevent additional health complications.

Supplements are also commonly used during the treatment of anorexia nervosa when bone loss is a concern. Doctors may recommend their clients take calcium and vitamin D, for example, to help support bone health and prevent further density losses.

Since returning to a healthy weight can cause psychological distress, many clients benefit from taking medications designed to treat mental health problems, such as antidepressants. This is also helpful for those with co-occurring depression, anxiety, and similar conditions.

Continued Medical Oversight

While in the residential and partial hospitalization treatment levels, clients receive continuous medical oversight from their nursing team. The nurses perform daily assessments to monitor physical and mental health, making sure to note any changes and report them to the doctor. They are also available 24 hours a day to provide care and support as needed by their clients.

Doctors meet with their clients at least once a week or more often if needed. They perform a physical exam and check in with their clients to see if they are doing okay following the given treatment plan. They make any necessary changes as needed to help clients manage their co-occurring conditions and work on eating disorder recovery.

If they prescribe any medications, doctors will assess how they are working and discuss potential side effects. Depending on the answers to those questions, they may make adjustments to the dosage or medication type.

Nutritional Restoration

Nutritional restoration is a vital part of treating anorexia nervosa and helping clients return to a healthy state. Many people with this condition lose a large percentage of their body mass, leaving them emaciated and unable to eat the proper amount each day. They have to slowly return to regular eating levels under the care and guidance of a medical treatment team.

Eating disorder treatment centers support that goal by partnering their clients with a registered dietician experienced in nutritional restoration. They will meet with this care provider once a week for nutrition therapy designed to help them navigate all their barriers to recovery. During those visits, the dietician will create a thoughtful meal plan that address their client’s nutritional needs along with their personal preferences.

As clients progress through the care levels, their meal plans will change, as will their level of involvement in meal preparation. Throughout treatment, clients will also have a chance to participate in:

  • Process groups before and after meals
  • Mindful eating sessions
  • Weekly cooking groups

Through this process, they will learn how to become responsible for their proper self-nourishment. They will learn how to portion their food and regulate their eating habits to stay in great health. If any issues arise during these steps, they can rely on their dietician and other care providers for support in navigating around their key challenges.

Mental Health Care

At the core of anorexia nervosa treatment is mental health care, as it is not only about returning to a healthy weight and adopting good eating habits. Clients need to have their mental health addressed to banish the disordered thoughts and habits that come with this condition. They need to reach a secure state of mind that allows them to remain at a beneficial weight while feeling good about themselves.

To help them get to that state, treatment centers offer the full range of specialized therapies, including:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Until they get treatment, trauma can have a lasting impact on a person’s life. While dealing with unaddressed trauma, many people face a higher risk of developing serious health conditions, including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. To unwind the effects of trauma and help people become fully recovered from eating disorders, treatment centers often use trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy steps, this approach focuses on addressing traumatic events and their destructive forces. Clients often work through a trauma narrative during these sessions. This narrative allows them to find the most disturbing parts of the event and how it affects their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Therapists assist in processing the traumatic event and releasing its hold.  

Once they can walk through the traumatic event a few times, therapists may have their clients start in vivo exercises. These tasks allow clients to address how the trauma affects their daily lives and understand where their disordered thoughts and behaviors are coming from.

With that information, they can start dismantling the destructive effects of trauma and leave maladaptive coping skills behind. They will slowly work on each coping skill by assessing their level of distress as they experience the triggers. Then, they will actively replace the coping skills with a healthier option, helping them let go of harmful behaviors.

Therapists will introduce many beneficial coping skills during the sessions, including:

  • Belly breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Journaling
  • Art
  • Meditation

They will also promote the importance of mindfulness to catch unwanted thoughts and behaviors before they become overwhelming. All these steps are repeated over and over in therapy to help clients gain mastery over using healthy coping skills to deal with trauma triggers.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

For help dealing with distress healthily, there is dialectical behavior therapy. This type of therapy centers around four key modules:

  • Mindfulness
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness
  • Distress tolerance
  • Emotional regulation

Clients start with mindfulness by learning how to notice and evaluate how they are feeling in the moment. As overwhelming thoughts and feeling arise, they will actively observe and describe them, keeping disassociation at bay.

Through the interpersonal effectiveness module, clients work on determining what they need and asking for it. They also learn how to set boundaries with other people and say no without explaining or feeling guilty. Therapists introduce helpful strategies for handling conflict at this time to assist their clients in adequately standing up for themselves.

The distress tolerance module brings helpful coping skills into the mix to give clients a way to distract and self-soothe. While staying in the moment with mindfulness, they will bring out the skills they learn whenever distress arises. They will learn how to use those skills effectively to keep disordered thoughts and actions from taking over instead.

The final module, emotional regulation, focuses on fully feeling and responding to emotions in a healthy manner. Disassociation tends to mask negative emotions, limiting the full range of feeling and preventing people from becoming fully recovered. To overcome this challenge, clients must learn how to recognize their emotions and respond to them effectively. Then, they can work on bringing more positive events into their lives and enjoying the full range of emotions as they come.

As clients move through all four modules, their ability to heal and recover improves. They can then better see the path toward becoming and remaining fully recovered from anorexia nervosa.

Other Types of Therapy Used to Treat Anorexia Nervosa

Many other types of therapy are used to help people recover from anorexia nervosa, such as:

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
  • Dance and movement therapy
  • Attachment-based therapy
  • Expressive therapy
  • Family systems theory

Each one educates clients on the underlying causes of their eating disorder and helps them develop new skills to use in recovery.

To find the ideal therapy types and other treatment protocols, treatment providers assess each client’s mental and physical health needs. Then, they create a treatment plan tailored to their exact needs to better help them move toward becoming recovered.

When dealing with the effects of anorexia nervosa, all people need to do to get care is call 866-511-4325. Admissions specialists are always available to help everyone take the first steps in starting treatment.