What is Catalepsy?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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Catalepsy is a nervous disorder characterized by immobility and muscular rigidity, along with a decreased sensitivity to pain. In hypnosis, catalepsy refers to a state of muscular rigidity, usually of a part of the body, such as an arm, induced by the hypnotist in the patient. In this latter sense, catalepsy is often used as a test before further hypnosis.

As a nervous condition, catalepsy is a symptom of a number of disorders, including Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, cocaine withdrawal, sleep apnea, obesity, depression, and emotional shock. It can also be a side effect of anti-psychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia. Catalepsy is also a possible side effect of septoplasty, a surgery performed to straighten the septum, the cartilage separating the nostrils. In addition to the symptoms listed above, a cataleptic patient may experience anxiety, lower back pain, fatigue, loss of muscle control, and slowed bodily functions, notably breathing. The limbs may remain in any position in which they are placed.

Catalepsy is a rare disorder. Cataleptic fits come on suddenly, and can last from several minutes to several days, and for weeks in extreme cases. They are often accompanied by a lack of senses in the patient, though not always. A cataleptic patient often cannot move or speak at all.


Before catalepsy was better understood by medicine, cataleptics were sometimes buried alive in the belief that they were dead. Cases of cataleptics reviving when buried and digging their way out of the grave may have helped give rise to legends of vampires and other revenants. Cataleptic states have also been confused historically with other states of trance, such as those induced by meditation or hypnosis. The word catalepsy comes from the Greek for "down" and "to seize," reflecting ancient beliefs that the cataleptic was being seized by some supernatural entity.

A cataleptic fit can be treated by bathing the head in cold water, followed by a warm foot bath and stimulating massage, especially to the spine and abdomen. Stimulating aromatics, like lavender or peppermint, can also help the patient regain movement. If the cataleptic fit lasts for a long time, nourishment or fluids may have to be force-fed or otherwise administered. A cataleptic fit may also be treated with medication, usually high doses of enzodiazepines. In extreme cases, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be effective.


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