Catatonia and Catalepsy

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Synonyms: waxy flexibility, flexibilitas cerea

Catatonia is a state of apparent unresponsiveness to external stimuli in a patient who appears to be awake. It is a presentation of a number of different conditions rather than a disease itself. It may be an episodic condition with periods of remission, and triggered by medication or other changes in circumstances.[1]


This is not an exhaustive list! 


  • Non-convulsive status epilepticus, complex partial seizures.
  • Encephalopathies.
  • Cerebrovascular disease (thrombosis or haemorrhage, venous thrombosis, etc).
  • Parkinsonism and dystonias.
  • Tumours and other intracranial lesions (including post-surgery).
  • Degenerative neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis and Huntington's disease.
  • Central pontine myelinolysis.
  • Hydrocephalus.
  • Head injury and locked-in syndrome.


  • Acute stress disorder, hysteria.
  • Neuroleptic malignant syndrome.
  • Major depression and mood disorders.
  • Pervasive developmental disorders, including autism.
  • Psychosis and schizophrenia.
  • Substance intoxication or drug withdrawal.
  • Anorexia nervosa.



Inherited neurometabolic disorders

  • Homocystinuria.
  • Hereditary coproporphyria.
  • Tay-Sachs disease.
  • Wilson's disease.


Catatonia can occur in a huge range of conditions and it is very important to identify any treatable causes - particularly psychosis, non-convulsive status epilepticus, neuroleptic malignant syndrome or encephalitis. No history will be forthcoming from the patient - but there may be relevant history from family or friends. Determine whether there is anything relevant in the medication list or past medical history to suggest a cause.


Perform a full examination. Check for a pyrexia, meningism or other signs of infection. Note whether there are any neurological signs or abnormal movements, or cogwheel rigidity (Parkinsonism). A grasp reflex may be present.[2]

Classic features

  • Motoric immobility - catalepsy (see below), waxy flexibility, stupor (extreme hypoactivity, minimal response to stimuli, including painful ones).
  • Mutism - verbally minimally responsive.
  • Negativism - involuntary resistance to passive movement, or involuntary oppositional behaviour (Gegenhalten).

There may be automatic obedience or exaggerated co-operation, combativeness, or even ambitendency (alternating co-operation and opposition). Other features include mitgehen (eg, arm raising in response to light finger pressure, despite instructions to the contrary), echopraxia, echolalia or verbigeration (repetition of phrases or sentences like a scratched record); or stereotypies (repetitive meaningless activities).

There is also an excited-delirious variety of catatonia with extreme hyperactivity (constant motor unrest or non-purposeful repetitive motor activity).[2] Patients may develop hyperthermia, tachycardia, and hypertension and be in danger of collapse from exhaustion.[1]

The catatonia rating scale may be helpful in assessments.[3]


  • FBC, U&E and creatinine, LFT, glucose, calcium, fibrin D-dimer, serum creatine kinase (usually elevated in neuroleptic malignant syndrome), serum ceruloplasmin (to detect Wilson's disease).
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) should readily identify a seizure disorder.
  • CT, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET) scan may be appropriate to exclude intracranial lesions


The patient needs admission for identification and treatment of the underlying condition, and may require enteral feeding.

Historical note

Catatonia was first described by Karl Kahlbaum in 1874. The dancer Nijinsky was apparently affected by catatonia.[4]

Catalepsy is a state characterised by a patient keeping an uncomfortable, rigid and fixed posture despite external stimulus or resistance. There may also be decreased sensitivity to pain. It is a feature seen in catatonia (see above).

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Further reading and references

  • Fink M; Catatonia: a syndrome appears, disappears, and is rediscovered. Can J Psychiatry. 2009 Jul54(7):437-45.

  1. Weder ND, Muralee S, Penland H, et al; Catatonia: a review. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun20(2):97-107. doi: 10.1080/10401230802017092.

  2. Taylor MA, Fink M; Catatonia in psychiatric classification: a home of its own. Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Jul160(7):1233-41.

  3. Catatonia Rating Scale; United Kingdom Psychiatric Pharmacy Group

  4. Ostwald P; The "God of the dance": treating Nijinsky's manic excitement and catatonia. Hosp Community Psychiatry. 1994 Oct45(10):981-5.

I had burning/pins and needles about 5 years ago for 2 weeks. At the time, I did a blood test and CT scan and nothing abnormal showed up - it all disappeared. Now again - for the past 4 days - I've...

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