Though it sounds like a fairy tale, “Rapunzel Syndrome” is quite the opposite. A 38-year-old woman suffering from the rare disorder recently endured a nightmare: large hairballs in her GI tract that had to be surgically removed.
According to the BBC, doctors extracted a 6-by-4-inch ball of “densely packed” hair from the unidentified American woman’s stomach and a 1.5-by-1-inch hairball from her small intestine.
Rapunzel Syndrome — named, of course, after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale princess with fantastically long hair that was as “fine as spun gold” — is a rare psychological disorder that causes people to pull out and eat their own strands of hair. It’s a combination of compulsive hair-pulling, called trichotillomania, and the urge to consume the ends, or entire shafts, of hair, termed trichophagia, which usually occurs in young girls, according to the website of the Journal of Digestive Endoscopy. The BBC confirms that this woman’s case in one of only a handful of documented incidents (88, to be exact, with 40 percent of cases happening in girls younger than 10).
In addition to gastrointestinal blockages, eating one’s own hair can cause gum disease, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and diarrhea, according to the website of the Belgravia Centre, a U.K.-based hair-loss treatment clinic.
The first two known cases of the syndrome were reported in 1968, according to the Journal of Digestive Endoscopy. The journal refers to a more recent case of a 17-year-old girl with a history of hair-pulling who had been experiencing pain and vomiting for a year before being diagnosed with Rapunzel Syndrome. Doctors discovered a 23-inch-long hairball that had extended into her small intestine.
So what happens when one has consumed enough hair to develop two large hairballs in your internal organs? They need to be surgically removed as soon as possible, because leaving them there can have devastating effects. The 38-year-old woman in the BBC report began experiencing vomiting and constipation, and “her stomach swelled as it filled with liquids and gas” as the hairballs infiltrated her digestive system.
Sadly, she had “gone off food for a year,” lost 15 pounds in eight months, and was not able to keep down any food by the time she arrived at the hospital. The hairballs were safely removed, though, says the BBC.
After surgery, the woman was put on a high-protein diet and is likely receiving mental-health treatment. Because Rapunzel Syndrome is a behavioral disorder, surgery is most often followed by a psychiatric assessment, says the Journal of Digestive Endoscopy, and professional supervision is required to prevent recurrences. The Belgravia Centre adds that “a cognitive approach to therapy is usually taken, to help to break the rituals associated with the condition and lessen the compulsion to pull and eat the hair.”