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Catalepsy: what it is, symptoms, causes and associated disorders

Catalepsy: what it is, symptoms, causes and associated disorders

May 26, 2024

For a long time one of the great universal fears of humanity was to be buried alive, even to the present. Unfortunately this fear was not unfounded, since there are numerous known cases of people, apparently dead, buried while still alive.

This phenomenon of apparent death is known as catalepsy , and although there are currently numerous ways to confirm the death of a person, in the dawn of medicine these cases were very numerous.

  • Related article: "Sleep paralysis: definition, symptoms and causes"

What is catalepsy?

Catalepsy is categorized as a disorder of the central nervous system . This is characterized because the person suffers from a body paralysis, along with a hardening and tension of the muscles, being unable to perform any type of movement.

Another hallmark of catalepsy is that the person experiences a reduction in pain sensitivity . But the most striking thing about this disorder is that the person is absolutely aware of everything, coming to listen or see everything that happens around him.

This disorder has traditionally been known as "apparent death", obtaining its reputation for a series of cases in which some people were buried alive in a state of catalepsy, and which were thought to have died.

The cause of this confusion is that a person in a state of catalepsy it can happen from a few minutes to a few weeks paralyzed , without showing obvious signs of life.

Although at first sight it seems a terrifying disorder, since it appears suddenly and the person remains conscious, it is not a serious condition and the person can recover regularly once the condition is determined. On the other hand, there have been cases of catalepsy in healthy people. Usually, its appearance is related to other disorders such as severe diagnoses of schizophrenia, hysteria and in some psychoses.


As mentioned in the previous point, a person without any type of disorder or disease can suffer an episode of catalepsy; being more likely to happen after it suffers from a crisis of anxiety, fatigue or lumbar afflictions .

To avoid possible confusion with fainting or even believe that person has died, it is important to know the symptoms of catalepsy. These are:

  • Body rigidity
  • Pallor
  • Decrease or cancellation of the response to visual stimuli
  • Insensitivity to pain
  • Slowness of bodily functions like breathing and heart rhythm
  • Lack of control over one's muscles
  • Appearance of waxy flexibility, in which when another person moves some part of the body of it stays in that position.

Thus, catalepsy is expressed through motor and physiological symptoms. This, as we will see, makes it present some characteristics similar to other diseases, as we will see.


Catalepsy can not be considered a disorder or disease per se, but rather a symptom or product of some pathology of the nervous system, such as epilepsy or Parkinson's. Likewise, it is a very characteristic symptom of certain psychotic disorders , especially of schizophrenia.

In addition to this, some people who undergo rehabilitation treatments for alcohol, drugs or some type of narcotic, are also susceptible to a catalepsy crisis, which is why Withdrawal syndrome may be a probable source of catalepsy .

While these are the main causes of this disorder there are a number of situations in which the person is more likely to experience this phenomenon. These are:

  • Obesity
  • Major depression
  • Sleep apnea
  • Catalepsy after experiencing very intense emotions

Be that as it may, if a person suffers some incident of this type it is necessary that he goes to a medical center to rule out any possibility of disorder or associated pathology.

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After experiencing a case of catalepsy, it is necessary to carry out an urgent evaluation and diagnosis using techniques such as electroencephalograms (EEG) or electrocardiograms (EEC). The purpose of these is to make a correct assessment of the disease and, above all, to exclude the possibility of death.

Unfortunately, there is still no specific treatment for catalepsy. Therefore, it is of vital importance for the clinician to specify what has been the cause, and according to the final diagnosis will be carried out a process of action that reestablishes the patient's health.

When the diagnosis is primary is associated with a disease of the nervous system, such as Parkinson's, the guideline is administer to the patient a series of muscle relaxants whose benefits have already been demonstrated in these cases.

However, when catalepsy is caused by a psychotic disorder, the action protocol encompasses the administration of antipsychotic medications by medical personnel , along with sessions of psychotherapy directed by psychologists or psychiatrists.

In addition, there are a number of useful home remedies for when the episode is relatively recurrent and is already diagnosed. This remedy involves submerging the feet of the person in a hot bath, massaging the spine and abdomen.

Differences between catalepsy and waxy flexibility

As seen at the point of symptoms, Waxy flexibility is a symptom of catalepsy , and although in many cases these terms are used interchangeably, they do not constitute exactly the same alteration and reveal fundamental differences.

Just as catalepsy is a disorder of the nervous system, the waxy flexibility is a psychomotor symptom characteristic of certain psychic disorders like catatonic schizophrenia.

Like the catalepsy, the waxy flexibility diminishes the ability of the person to move, as well as reducing the response to external stimuli, suppressing the will to react and remaining in an immobile attitude.

However, as described by the name of this phenomenon, although the person does not have any control over their own movements, if a third person tries to move some section of their body, it will perform the movement but will stay static in the position where they left it .

Therefore, the body of the person adopts the pose of a mannequin or a wax doll, being only able to move when another person executes the movement for it or modifies its position.

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