Each time Rupa Nirbhan* saw her daughter, Sapna*, mindlessly nibbling at her hair strands, she brushed it aside as a passing phase. But when the 13-year-old was recently wheeled into a hospital with severe stomach ache and continuous bouts of vomiting, the doctor’s prognosis alarmed her.
Sapna was diagnosed with suffering from a rare psychiatric disorder resulting in trichobezoar or Rapunzel’s syndrome — the accumulation in the abdomen or intestines of hair plucked and eaten.
“The patient was brought in on October 17 with a complaint that she had an inability to pass stool and, thus, had shooting abdominal pains. CT scans revealed she had a swollen intestine, but we were unable to figure out the reason for the swelling from scans. Seeing the severity of the condition, we decide to operate,” explains Dr Prajakt Patil, surgeon at Aryan Hospital in Kurla.
In a two-hour surgery, a ball of hair weighing close to 40gm was removed through an incision made in the small intestine.
“The stomach had to be cut open and the intestines were pulled out. An incision revealed a mass of hair inside the girl’s intestines,” says Dr Patil.
Rupa says she had no inkling of Sapna’s habit of consuming hair strands she kept pulling out. “She used to mindlessly pluck her hair everyday. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that she was consuming them. Two weeks ago she started vomiting and couldn’t eat. I rushed her to the hospital for check-ups and treatment.”
Sapna has been put on psychiatric counselling to wean her off the habit of plucking and eating her hair. She, however, is yet to realise the harm that the disorder leads to. Her concerns are like any other 13-year-old’s. “I miss school. I haven’t been able to attend school for a month. Mathematics is my favourite subject and I really need to catch up with my studies,” she says.
Experts say counselling is the best bet. “The areas from where hair is likely to be plucked should be shaved and groomed. Those afflicted with the disorder create knots by twisting and pulling the hair,” says Dr Anjali Kaira, consulting psychiatrist.
(Names in asterisk have been changed)