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As human beings we eat some strange things, many of them bad for us, but here's one that takes the biscuit!

In the USA surgeons operated on a woman who was admitted to hospital with a severely swollen stomach and unable to keep any food down. She had lost just over a stone in the previous eight months and reported developing sudden vomiting and constipation.  

Her stomach had swollen due to a build-up of liquids and gas. She had also become severely anaemic, so after stabilising her with blood transfusions the doctors in Arizona decided they had no option but to operate to find out what was going on. What they found amazed them.

They removed a densely-packed hairball measuring 15cm by 10cm (6in x4in) – about the size of a honeydew melon – from her stomach, then fond another measuring 4cm by 3cm (1.5in x 1in) in her small intestine. It turned out that the middle-aged woman had a long-term habit of plucking out her own hair and then eating it!

Perhaps even more remarkably she is not alone, as it is a recognised (if rare) medical condition. It even has a name, 'Rapunzel syndrome', after the fairytale character known for her long luscious locks. There have only been 88 other reported cases of Rapunzel syndrome, with two-fifths of them recorded in children under the age of 10.

According to the group of Arizona doctors, whose case is reported in the British Medical Journal, Rapunzel syndrome is an extremely rare condition. It actually combines two disorders  – 'trichtillomania', which refers to the compulsive plucking out of hair, and 'trichophagia', which refers to the eating of hair. While quite a lot of people might develop and exhibit hair plucking behaviour, especially at times of particular stress or anxiety, very few combine it with the disorder of eating hair.

Thankfully their patient recovered well after surgery, given a high-protein diet to help her recover physically and ongoing psychiatric support to get the the root (no pun intended!) of her unusual behaviour and hopefully prevent a repetition of the problem in future.

Of course, if you have ever owned a cat, or some dogs, you will be all too familiar with their rather unpleasant habit of 'coughing up' fur balls. These animals swallow loose hairs as they groom themselves by licking, but they are biologically evolved to expel the fur balls once they start to build up inside. Since humans have no real reason to eat hair, they have not evolved a way to get rid of it.

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