Presented by: Dave Jay S. Manriquez, RN.
Catatonic disorders are a group of symptoms characterized by disturbances in motor (muscular
movement) behavior that may have either a psychological or a physiological basis. The best-known of
these symptoms is immobility, which is a rigid positioning of the body held for a considerable length of
time. Patients diagnosed with a catatonic disorder may maintain their body position for hours, days,
weeks or even months at a time. Alternately, catatonic symptoms may look like agitated, purposeless
movements that are seemingly unrelated to the person's environment. The condition itself is called
A less extreme symptom of catatonic disorder is slowed-down motor activity. Often, the body position
or posture of a catatonic person is unusual or inappropriate; in addition, he or she may hold a position if
placed in it by someone else.
Types of catatonic disorder
CATATONIC SCHIZOPHRENIA.Schizophrenia is a severe, usually life-long mental illness that
affects every aspect of human functioning. Thinking, feeling, and behavior are all affected by the
disorder; and the person with schizophrenia usually has difficulties in interpersonal relationships as
well as in obtaining and keeping meaningful employment. The catatonic subtype of schizophrenia is,
fortunately, rare today in North America and Europe. It is characterized by severe disturbances in
motor behavior. Individuals with catatonic schizophrenia often show extreme immobility. They may
stay in the same position for hours, days, weeks, or longer. The position they assume may be unusual
and appear uncomfortable to the observer; for example, the person may stand on one leg like a stork, or
hold one arm outstretched for a long time. If an observer moves a hand or limb of the catatonic person's
body, he or she may maintain the new position. This condition is known as waxy flexibility. In other
situations, a person with catatonic schizophrenia may be extremely active, but the activity appears
bizarre, purposeless, and unconnected to the situation or surroundings. The patient may, for example,
run up and down a flight of stairs repeatedly. Catatonic stupor is characterized by extremely slowed
motor activity, often to the point of being motionless and appearing unaware of surroundings. The
patient may exhibit negativism, which means that he or she resists all attempts to be moved, or all
instructions or requests to move, without any apparent motivation.
Catatonic symptoms were first described by the psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum in 1874.
Kahlbaum described catatonia as a disorder characterized by unusual motor symptoms. His description
of individuals with catatonic behaviors remains accurate to this day. Kaulbaum carefully documented
the symptoms and the course of the illness, providing a natural history of this unusual disorder.
DEPRESSION WITH CATATONIC FEATURES. People who are severely depressed may show
disturbances of motor behavior resembling those of patients diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.
These depressed persons may remain virtually motionless, or move around in an extremely vigorous
but apparently random fashion. Extreme negativism, elective mutism (choosing not to speak), peculiar
movements, and imitating someone else's words or phrases (echolalia) or movements (echopraxia) may
also be part of the symptomatic picture. These behaviors may require caregivers to supervise the
patient, to insure that he or she does not hurt him- or herself or others.
Catatonic behaviors may also occur in persons with other mood disorders. Persons experiencing manic
or mixed mood states (a simultaneous combination of manic and depressive symptoms) may at times
exhibit either the immobility or agitated random activity seen in catatonia. A severely depressed person
may experience intense emotional pain from simply moving a finger. Even getting up out of a chair can
be a painful chore that may take hours for the severely depressed individual. As the depression begins
to lift, the catatonic symptoms diminish.
CATATONIC DISORDER DUE TO A GENERAL MEDICAL CONDITION. Persons with
catatonic disorder due to a medical condition show symptoms similar to those of catatonic
schizophrenia and catatonic depression, except that the cause is believed to be physiological. Such
neurological diseases as encephalitis may cause catatonic symptoms that can be temporary or lasting.
Psychiatric symptoms caused by physiological illnesses can appear early in the course of an illness. For
this reason, it is important to consider possible physical causes when catatonic symptoms appear.
Persons with catatonic symptoms of physical origin generally show greater self-awareness or insight,
and more distress about their symptoms than those suffering from schizophrenia. This difference can
help clinicians distinguish between patients whose catatonic symptoms stem from psychiatric causes
versus those whose symptoms have a medical origin.
Causes and symptoms
CATATONIC SCHIZOPHRENIA. The cause of schizophrenia remains unknown. During the past
decade, however, research has pointed to abnormalities in structure or function of certain areas of the
brain, including the limbic system, the frontal cortex, and the basal ganglia. These three regions are
interconnected, so that dysfunction in one area may be related to structural problems in another. Brain
imaging of living people and studies of the brains of deceased persons point to the limbic system as the
potential site of pathology in at least some, if not most, schizophrenic patients.
DEPRESSION WITH CATATONIC FEATURES. Mood disorders are believed to be at least
partially caused by irregularities in production of neurotransmitters within the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that conduct impulses along a nerve from one nerve cell to another.
Two of the most important neurotransmitters associated with depression are norepinephrine and
serotonin. In animal studies, virtually all effective antidepressant medications affect the receptors for
these neurotransmitters. Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that plays a role in the development of
CATATONIC DISORDER DUE TO A GENERAL MEDICAL CONDITION. Numerous medical
conditions can cause psychiatric symptoms. Some of the more common are infectious, metabolic, and
neurological conditions. Catatonic symptoms have been linked to earlier infection with encephalitis and
to Parkinson's disease. Although the appearance of patients with post-encephalitis catatonia may be
similar to that of catatonic schizophrenic patients, the majority of post-encephalitic patients are not
psychotic. Oliver Sacks vividly describes catatonic disorder due to encephalitis and Parkinson's disease
in his 1973 book Awakenings.
CATATONIC SCHIZOPHRENIA. Catatonic schizophrenia is a form of thought disorder with
prominent motor symptoms and abnormalities. These symptoms include:
Catalepsy, or motionlessness maintained over a long period of time.
Catatonic excitement, marked by agitation and seemingly pointless movement.
Catatonic stupor, with markedly slowed motor activity, often to the point of immobility and seeming
unawareness of the environment.
Catatonic rigidity, in which the person assumes a rigid position and holds it against all efforts to move
him or her.
Catatonic posturing, in which the person assumes a bizarre or inappropriate posture and maintains it
over a long period of time.
Waxy flexibility, in which the limb or other body part of a catatonic person can be moved into another
position that is then maintained. The body part feels to an observer as if it were made of wax.
Akinesia, or absence of physical movement.
DEPRESSION WITH CATATONIC FEATURES. Within the category of mood disorders, catatonic
symptoms are most commonly associated with bipolar I disorder. Bipolar I disorder is a mood disorder
involving periods of mania interspersed with depressive episodes. Symptoms of catatonic excitement,
such as random activity unrelated to the environment or repetition of words, phrases and movements
may occur during manic phases. Catatonic immobility may appear during the most severe phase of the
depressive cycle. The actual catatonic symptoms are indistinguishable from those seen in catatonic
schizophrenia. It is also possible for catatonic symptoms to occur in conjunction with other mood
disorders, including bipolar II disorder (in which a milder form of mania called hypomania occurs);
mixed disorders (in which mania and depression occur at the same time); and major depressive
CATATONIC DISORDER DUE TO A GENERAL MEDICAL CONDITION. Symptoms of
catatonic disorder caused by medical conditions are indistinguishable from those that occur in
schizophrenia and mood disorders. Unlike persons with schizophrenia, however, those with catatonic
symptoms due to a medical condition demonstrate greater insight and awareness into their illness and
symptoms. They have periods of clear thinking, and their affect (emotional response) is generally
appropriate to the circumstances. Neither of these conditions is true of patients with schizophrenia or
According to the handbook used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders, the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,fourth edition, Text Revision, also known as
A patient suffering from catatonic schizophrenia.
(Grunnitus Studios. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
between 5% and 9% of all psychiatric inpatients show some catatonic symptoms. Of these, 25%–50%
are associated with mood disorders, 10%–15% are associated with schizophrenia, and the remainder
are associated with other mental disorders. Catatonic symptoms can also occur in a wide variety of
general medical conditions, including infectious, metabolic and neurological disorders. They may also
appear as side effects of various medications, including several drugs of abuse.
Catatonic symptoms are quite noticeable. Important diagnostic distinctions, however, must be made to
determine their cause. Catatonic schizophrenia is diagnosed when the patient's other symptoms include
thought disorder, inappropriate affect, and a history of peculiar behavior and dysfunctional
relationships. Catatonic symptoms associated with a mood disorder are diagnosed when there is a prior
history of mood disorder, or after careful psychiatric evaluation. Medical tests are necessary to
determine the cause of catatonic symptoms caused by infectious diseases, metabolic abnormalities, or
neurological conditions. The patient should be asked about recent use of both prescribed and illicit
drugs in order to determine whether the symptoms are drug-related.
Treatment for catatonic symptoms depends on the underlying cause. Catatonic schizophrenia is treated
by a variety of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic methods. Hospitalization may be necessary to
protect the patient's safety. Supportive psychotherapy and family education can help persons with
schizophrenia and their families adjust to problems created by the illness. Such other supportive
services as sheltered workshops and special education may also be necessary.
Treatment of catatonic symptoms due to mood disorder involves therapy directed at the underlying
mood disorder. Manic episodes are treated with such mood stabilizers as lithium and valproic
acid(Depakote). Depressive episodes are treated with antidepressant medications or, if necessary,
electroconvulsive treatment (ECT).
Catatonic symptoms caused by a medical disorder require correct diagnosis of the underlying medical
condition, followed by appropriate treatment. Levodopa and amantadine(Symmetrel) have shown
some effectiveness in reducing catatonic symptoms due to post-encephalitic Parkinson'sdisease.
Hospitalization and careful supervision of persons with catatonic symptoms may be necessary to insure
that they do not hurt themselves or others.
Catatonic schizophrenia is usually a debilitating lifelong illness. Symptoms typically emerge in
adolescence. Social and environmental stressors, such as leaving home for college or military service,
use of an illicit drug, or the death of a close friend or relative may trigger the initial symptoms of
schizophrenia. The classic pattern is one of worsened symptoms alternating with remissions rather than
cure, although about 20% of patients eventually resume their previous level of functioning. Following
the initial episode, most patients suffer a relapse within five years of the diagnosis. The course of the
disorder varies, with women having a somewhat better prognosis, but persons with schizophrenia
remain vulnerable to stress for their lifetime.
Catatonia associated with mood disorders is somewhat more treatable, although it may also recur from
time to time throughout the patients life.
Catatonic symptoms caused by medical conditions can be treated and sometimes cured. Infections are
the most completely curable. Metabolic and neurological conditions may be treatable, but various
degrees of impairment may remain throughout the patient's life.
There are no specific preventive measures for most causes of catatonia. Infectious disease can
sometimes be prevented. Catatonic symptoms caused by medications or drugs of abuse can be reversed
by suspending use of the drug.
See also Affect; Bipolar disorders; Major depressive disorder; Manic episode; Schizophrenia
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.4th edition,
text revised. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Kaplan, Harold I., MD and Benjamin J. Sadock, MD. Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral
Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry.8th edition. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1998.
Sacks, Oliver. Awakenings.New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Carroll, B. T. quot;Kahlbaum's catatonia revisited.quot; Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience55, no. 5
Pfuhlmann, B., and G. Stober. quot;The different conceptions of catatonia: historical overview and critical
discussion.quot; European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neruoscience251 Supplement 1 (2001):14-
Sarkstein, S. E., J. C. Golar, A. Hodgkiss. quot;Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum's concept of catatonia.quot; History of
Psychiatry6, no. 22, part 2 (June 1995): 201-7.
American Psychiatric Association. 1400 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20002. (202) 336-5500.
Mental Illness Foundation. 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2104, New York, NY 10170. (212) 682-4699.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). 2101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 302, Arlington, VA 22201.
National Mental Health Association. 1021 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314. (703) 684-7722.
Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
The following comments are not guaranteed to be that of a trained medical professional. Please consult
your physician for advice.
M. S. Marinelli
Aug 9, 2007 @ 9:21 pm
Since it is common for initial symptoms of schizophrenia to manifest after a stressful life event, is this
indicative of a hormonal (adrenaline, cortisol) overload pathway to this disease in predisposed
individuals? There has been ongoing research in the prevention of PTSD using propanolol within a
predetermined period of time following a traumatic experience to mitigate the limbic mechanisms that
cause a vivid and permanant memory of the event to be stored. Would this be a possible treatment for
someone who is known to be predisposed to schizophrenia (familial history, etc.) that has endured a
stressful triggering event, especially younger patients who have not developed adult coping skills to
deal with such events? Mario
Jun 3, 2008 @ 11:23 pm
I was originally diagnosed as having Bipolar disorder. Recent events have caused my condition to be
rediagnosed as PTSD (fight, flight or freeze (i.e., catatonia)). I have had four bouts of catatonia
between November 30, 2007 and May 23, 2008. These catatonic events have been characterized by
complete inability to move (other than breathing) or talk. The events have each occurred in full form
for about 2-3 hours and then as my body begins to unfreeze, various body parts will begin to move with
subsequent refreezing. During my thawing out I regain interspersed ability to talk in an impaired
fashion and then lose that ability again. One thing that inspired me to provide this entry is that there is
constant medical comment (such as that provided on this website) that persons who are in a catatonic
state appear to be unaware of their surroundings. In my instance that is not true at all. I am fully
mentally cognizant without impairment yet trapped in a body that is unable to move. In two of the
instances, the catatonic event was preceded by a perception that I was in a parallel universe. However,
once the catatonia fully set in, my mental faculties returned completely. My hypothesis is that prior to
the catatonic event, my mind dissociates when triggered by a retraumatizing event. However, when my
body takes on the dissociation by "freezing" or becoming catatonic, my mental faculties are
able to fully return. Most of the events have been triggered by later identifiable events that give context
to the catatonic event. The latest event occurred when I was in court prosecuting a child sex crimes
case with facts highly reminiscent of my original traumatic event. Other events took place at an
allergist's office & in my therapist's parking lot after a particularly difficult session on New Year's
Eve where I was trapped in my car on the coldest night of the year for three hours without being able to
communicate with the outside world although I was fully cognizant, could hear and understand
conversations going on around me when people were walking to their cars. At one point I watched a
cigarette roll around in the middle of the street for an unknown period of time before it disappeared
from view. In that situation, I was finally able to get my phone with my right hand when it unfroze for
a moment. It refroze for another extended period of time. Then my thumb regained
"consciousness" and I was able to try to dial numbers with my thumb. When I finally was
able to dial the correct number to the therapist office, I was unable to talk and they thought it was a
crank call and hung up. A little while later, I was able to vocalize without words (grunting) and dial my
house number with my thumb. I grunted into the phone. A little while later, I regained the ability to talk
in a grunt like, halting fashion and dialed my home number again with my mobile thumb. At that time I
was able to squeak out where I was. A family member came to pick me up but I couldnt move my body
which was like that of a ragdoll...I was pulled out of the car and fell unprotected onto the asphault like
a crumpling ragdoll with no ability to brace myself. I had absolutely no muscle control and had to
literally be dragged into the other car. As I was being driven home, my speech became a little more
understandable, although still halting and grunting. When I arrived home, a neighbor had to carry me
into the house. At that time, I was able to talk in an impaired fashion (like someone who's had a stroke)
to my therapist and psychiatrist.