Muscle dysmorphia is a subtype of the obsessive mental disorder body dysmorphic disorder, but is often also grouped with eating disorders. In muscle dysmorphia, which is sometimes called "bigorexia", "megarexia", or "reverse anorexia", the delusional or exaggerated belief is that one's own body is too small, too skinny, insufficiently muscular, or insufficiently lean, although in most cases, the individual's build is normal or even exceptionally large and muscular already.
Muscle dysmorphia affects mostly males, particularly those involved in sports where body size or weight are competitive factors, becoming rationales to gain muscle or become leaner. The quest to seemingly fix one's body consumes inordinate time, attention, and resources, as on exercise routines, dietary regimens, and nutritional supplementation, while use of anabolic steroids is also common. Other body-dysmorphic preoccupations that are not muscle-dysmorphic are usually present as well.
Although likened to anorexia nervosa, muscle dysmorphia is especially difficult to recognize, since awareness of it is scarce and persons experiencing muscle dysmorphia typically remain very healthy-looking. The distress and distraction of muscle dysmorphia provoke absences from school, work, and socializing. Versus other body dysmorphic disorders, rates of suicide attempts are especially high with muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia's incidence is rising, partly through recent popularization of extreme cultural ideals of men's bodies.
A rather newly recognized mental disorder, muscle dysmorphia was first conceptualized by healthcare professionals in the late 1990s. In 2016, 50% of peer-reviewed articles on it had been published in the prior five years.
Although muscle dysmorphia was initially viewed as anorexia nervosa's inverse—questing not to be small and thin, but to be large and muscular—later researchers fit the subjective experience to body dysmorphic disorder. (Some debate continues.)
The American Psychiatric Association recognized muscle dysmorphia in 2013 with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This DSM-5 classifies it under body dysmorphic disorder. Muscle dysmorphia is absent from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems' present edition, the tenth, published in 1992.
Signs and symptoms
Although body dissatisfaction has been found in males as young as age six, muscle dysmorphia's onset is estimated at usually between ages 18 and 20. According to American psychiatry's DSM-5, muscle dysmorphia is indicated by the diagnostic criteria for body dysmorphic disorder via "the idea that his or her body build is too small or insufficiently muscular", and this specifier holds even if the individual is preoccupied with other body areas, too, as is often the case.
Psychologists have identified further clinical features of muscle dysmorphia, such as excess engagement in activities to increase muscularity, activities such as dietary restriction, over-exercise, and injection of growth-enhancing drugs. Persons experiencing muscle dysmorphia generally spend over three hours daily pondering increased muscularity, and feel unable to limit their weightlifting activities. As in anorexia nervosa, the reverse quest in muscle dysmorphia can be insatiable. They closely monitor their bodies and camouflage by wearing multiple clothing layers to appear larger.
Muscle dysmorphia involves severe distress at having one's body viewed by others. Occupational and social functioning are impaired, and dietary regimes may interfere. Patients often avoid activities, people, and places to conceal their perceived deficiency of size or muscularity. Roughly half of patients have poor or no insight that these perceptions are unrealistic. Patient histories reveal elevated rates of diagnoses of other mental disorders, including eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorder, as well as elevated rates of suicide attempts.
Prevalence estimates for muscle dysmorphia have greatly varied, ranging from 1% to 54% of men. Samples of gym members, weightlifters, and bodybuilders show higher prevalence than do samples from the general population. Rates even higher have been found in users of anabolic steroids. The disorder is rare in women but does occur, and has been noted especially in female bodybuilders who also have experienced sexual assault. Crossing cultures, muscle dysmorphia is known to occur in China, South Africa, and Latin America. Yet this may be mediated substantially by exposure to Western ideals of muscularity, as populations less exposed tend to have lower prevalence.
Although muscle dysmorphia's development is unclear, several risk factors have been identified.
- Trauma and bullying: Versus the general population, persons manifesting muscle dysmorphia are more likely to have experienced or observed traumatic events like sexual assault or domestic violence, or to have sustained adolescent bullying and ridicule for perceived deficiencies such as smallness, weakness, poor athleticism, or intellectual inferiority. Increased body mass may seem to reduce the threat of further mistreatment.
- Sociopsychological traits: Low self-esteem associates with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and of muscle dysmorphia. Increased body size or muscularity may seem to enhance the masculine identity.
- Media exposure: As Western media emphasize physical attractiveness, some marketing campaigns now exploit male body-image insecurities. Over the past 20 years, the number of men's-fitness magazines and of partially-undressed, well-muscled men in advertisements have increased. Such media provoke bodily comparisons and pressure individuals to conform, yet increase the gap between men's perceptions of their own muscularity versus their desired muscularity. In college-aged men, a strong predictor of a muscularity quest is internalization of the idealized male bodies depicted in media.
- Athletic involvement: Athletes tend to share some psychological factors that may predispose to muscle dysmorphia, factors including high levels of competitiveness, need for control, and perfectionism, and athletes tend to be more critical of their own bodies and body weight. Athletes who also fail to achieve performance standards may resort to the extreme body-modifying measures of muscle dysmorphia. Involvement in sports where size, strength, and weight raise competitive advantage or lessen disadvantage, associates with muscle dysmorphia. Athletic ideals reinforce the social ideal of muscularity. Conversely, those already disposed to muscle dysmorphia may be more likely to participate in such sports.
Treatment of muscle dysmorphia can be stymied by a patient's unawareness that the preoccupation is disordered or by avoidance of treatment. Scientific research on treatment of muscle dysmorphia is limited, the evidence largely in case reports and anecdotes, and no specific protocols have been validated. Still, evidence supports the efficacy of family-based therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and pharmacotherapy with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Also limited is research on prognosis of the untreated.
Muscle dysmorphia's classification has been widely debated, and alternative DSM classifications have been proposed.
- Eating disorder: Many of muscle dysmorphia's traits overlap with those of eating disorders, including focus on body weight, shape, and modification, whereas body dysmorphic disorder otherwise usually lacks such dietary and exercise components. Also, persons experiencing muscle dysmorphia tend to score high on the Eating Attitudes Test and Eating Disorder Inventory, while muscle dysmorphia and anorexia nervosa share diagnostic crossover. Meanwhile, both muscle dysmorphia and eating disorders associate with higher impairment than does body dysmorphic disorder otherwise. And treatment for eating disorders may be effective for muscle dysmorphia.
- Behavioral addiction: Some researchers seek muscle dysmorphia's reclassification as a behavioral addiction. Muscle dysmorphia's effort to maintain body image is enacted through particular activities, such as exercise, diet, and related shopping, which activities, as in behavioral addiction, are highly valued, modify mood, and may cause interpersonal conflicts. Also, tolerance to muscle building and dietary restriction can drive escalation of these activities to restore physiological or psychological effects. Further, abstinence from these activities can provoke withdrawal symptoms, and relapse into excessive engagement is apt to occur.
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