Autophagia is one name for both the process of eating parts of one’s own body and a term used to describe a psychological condition marked by the desire to do so. This term may also refer to the natural processes that the body uses to consume its own tissues, either as a response to severe hunger or in order to remove old or dead cells from the body. A mild version of this behavior is common in most men and women. No clear single cause has been identified to explain more severe instances of autophagia, but in some cases, the condition is linked to pica, the urge to consume inedible objects, or to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Most human beings engage in mild forms of autophagia with some regularity. This behavior is typically limited to biting fingernails and chewing on dead skin at the tips of fingers or on the lips. This type of behavior may be indicative of elevated levels of stress, but is not normally cause for concern.
In more serious cases of autophagia, the behavior involves self-mutilation, and comes to resemble a form of cannibalism. The behavior often manifests as a more extreme version of the normal sorts of autophagia that are part of everyday human life. A man or woman might inflict serious injury to their own fingers, or even gnaw them off entirely. Instances in which an instrument of some sort is used to cut off a portion of the body are generally classified differently, as varieties of self-cannibalism.
The precise reasons for this sort of behavior are not perfectly understood. In some cases, the behavior is thought to be an extension of other, milder symptoms of OCD. Other cases may involve the same underlying impulses that fuel pica. These cases may stem from a combination of actual malnutrition, psychological distress, and abnormal signaling in the portions of the brain responsible for directing appetite.
Certain cases may stem from a desire to experience sensation, perhaps because of a loss of sensory input from other sources. Patients, especially the elderly, who experience sensory loss may seek to compensate for this by seeking stronger stimuli. An additional explanation for autophagia posits that this behavior is driven by a desire to inflict pain on the body, perhaps as a result of deep-rooted sexual problems or in an attempt to cope with stress, but this, too, has not been conclusively proved.
Health care workers responsible for treating autophagia must address both the psychological or physiological causes of the behavior and any physical injuries. Treatment typically includes standard wound care to speed healing and prevent infection. Symptoms of OCD, if present, are usually treated with medicine or therapy. Any other pronounced psychological conditions are also addressed, and potential emotional stressors are removed if they can be identified.