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Insatiable Hunger, Intense Cravings and Impeded Growth: The Signs and Symptoms of Prader-Willi Syndrome

There’s a rare genetic disorder affecting only 350,000 people around the world – and though its global reach is small, the consequences are anything but. The condition in question, Prader-Willi syndrome, causes insatiable cravings and a host of other uncomfortable symptoms – here’s what you need to know.

Prader-Willi syndrome is a genetic disorder that results in a number of physical and mental health symptoms, with the most notable being an urgent and unrelenting feeling of hunger. People with the condition tend to never feel full and have difficulty maintaining their weight, and it’s the resulting obesity for many sufferers that leads to the common complications associated with Prader-Willi syndrome. Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms that affect different age groups with the condition.

Symptoms in infants

There are a number of symptoms distinct to infants with Prader-Willi syndrome – let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.

  • Inadequate muscle tone: One of the major signs of the condition is poor muscle tone – also known as hypotonia – which is sometimes evident as the elbows and knees appear to be loose and extended, or even floppy at times.
  • Issues with sucking reflex: Babies and infants with Prader-Willi often struggle with their sucking reflex as a result of their poor muscle tone.
  • Facial features: You’ll often notice distinct combination of features in a child with Prader-Willi, such as head that narrows around the temples, a downturned mouth, thin upper lip and almond-shaped eyes.
  • Response issues: Infants with the condition may have poor responsiveness to their surroundings, along with having a harder time waking from sleep.

  • Poorly developed genitals: Male babies and infants tend to have a smaller scrotum and penis, why female babies and infants tend to have a smaller clitoris and labia.

Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms that crop up from the childhood years that follow to adulthood.

Craving food and excessive hunger

One of the biggest symptoms associated with Prader-Willi syndrome is the excessive, near-constant hunger and food cravings which tends to start at around 2 years of age. Because people with the condition don't get that signal from their brain telling them they're full, they have to urge to keep eating, and this often results in weight gain and obesity, along with disordered food behaviours like hoarding, eating rubbish and consuming excessively large portion sizes.

Underdeveloped reproductive organs

This symptom affects not just infants, but older children and adults too. It’s often referred to as hypogonadism – this is a condition that occurs when the reproductive organs release little to no sex hormones, often leading to underdeveloped sex organs, delayed puberty and infertility.

Issues with growth and physical development

People with Prader-Willi often have a lack of growth hormones, leading to shorter height and poor muscle tone, along with a greater body fat percentage as a result of food behaviours. Many experience issues with the endocrine system, such as central adrenal insufficiency – which affects the body’s response to pathogens – along with inadequate production of thyroid hormones, also known as hypothyroidism. Another sign of the condition is delayed development of motor function with children crawling, sitting and walking at later stages than their peers. Some may also experience intellectual disabilities relating to impaired cognition, problem solving and reasoning, along with speech problems, particularly with the articulation of words.

Behavioural issues

People with Prader-Willi syndrome often have behavioural issues, including anger and impatience when food is withheld, along with stubbornness or stress during changes to routine. Children and adults with the condition are also more likely to develop anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health issues.  

Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Small hands and feet
  • Sleep disorders
  • Scoliosis
  • Pale hair, eyes and skin 

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