What is Cataplexy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Cataplexy is a neurological disorder which causes people to lose muscle tone and strength for a brief period of time, usually in response to an emotional stimulus such as fear, anger, laughter, or surprise. This condition is often associated with narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder, and is in fact considered one of the hallmark signs of narcolepsy, although cataplexy can occur independently as well. It is important to seek treatment for cataplexy, because it can be dangerous.

Cataplexy is usually associated with narcolepsy.
Cataplexy is usually associated with narcolepsy.

The extent of the loss of muscle strength in cataplexy varies. Some patients actually collapse, and their vital signs become so irregular that they are hard to detect. In other instances, people simply feel weak, and their jaws and limbs may go slack for a moment. When cataplexy is associated with daytime sleepiness, hallucinations, and problems with REM sleep, it is usually indicative of narcolepsy.

Cataplexy is considered one of the hallmark signs of narcolepsy.
Cataplexy is considered one of the hallmark signs of narcolepsy.

During an attack of cataplexy, it is common for the vision to become blurry, but other senses may remain intact. Most people, for example, can hear very well, and sense touch, although they may not be able to respond because their voices are slurred, or because their muscles have become effectively paralyzed for a moment. It is a good idea to be aware of this if you are around someone who suffers from cataplexy; during a collapse, speaking in a soothing tone and explaining what's going on may be greatly appreciated, even if the patient cannot express it.

Although “plexis” means “seizure” in Greek, cataplexy is not a seizure, and it isn't dangerous in and of itself. However, if an attack of cataplexy happens at an inopportune moment, such as while someone is driving, it can be a problem. Cataplexy can also cause social embarrassment, and it may make people hesitant to socialize and go out. The tendency to quash emotions may emerge in response to the realization that cataplexy is linked with extreme emotions, which can be psychologically unhealthy.

Several medications can be used to treat cataplexy, and this condition is usually treated separately from narcolepsy. Sometimes it may take several medications and dosage adjustments to find the right medicine for cataplexy, and while this may be frustrating, the increased freedom afterwards is well worth it, in the eyes of many patients. While undergoing treatment for cataplexy, it is common to be treated for narcolepsy as well, and sometimes narcolepsy treatment can cause an improvement in cataplexy symptoms.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What would cause sudden collapse, eyes closed, total paralysis that lasts for several minutes? It caused confusion when they first come back to consciousness, but they can hear everything going on around them while it is happening. They just cannot move anything, even their eyelids, while it is happening.


I was diagnosed in 1993. Narcolepsy/cataplexsy. Three months prior my husband left me, saying, "You are just doing this for attention".


I have narcolepsy and cataplexy. I am unlike most others with narcolepsy in the sense that I don't fall asleep without warning. I feel extreme daytime sleepiness where it feels like I haven't slept in weeks, and given the chance, I can fall asleep in less than 10 seconds (during the Multiple Sleep Latency Test naps, I fell asleep during the calibration before the tests even started), but thankfully I don't just drop my head and fall asleep without warning. I know ahead of time how sleepy I am and can pull over to the side of the road or lie down somewhere.

As for cataplexy, I am also very lucky. My trigger emotion is extreme fear, which happens rarely. I'd hate to be one of those poor people whose trigger is laughter or anger because those are my most frequent emotions! But when I do experience that extreme fear, my body goes weak and my legs can't hold my weight any more. I feel like a bowl full of jelly. I've never fully collapsed though. I just kind of walk/run like I'm about to fall down, with my legs giving way, and I sit down or purposely get on the floor until it passes.


I have cataplex really bad. I am on provigil but still having a lot of trouble. I was wondering if weed would help me?


I can’t imagine having both narcolepsy and cataplexy! It would be bad enough to fall asleep without warning, but to suddenly lose control of your body while you’re awake would be really hard.

I would feel so vulnerable if I couldn’t control my speech or movements. I think that might be even more terrifying than actually falling asleep uncontrollably, because both are involuntary, but if you fall asleep, you generally don’t know it until you wake up.

Does anyone here have narcolepsy and cataplexy? Do you have to be supervised so that you don’t endanger yourself?


I have had cataplexy attacks twice in my life, and both times, I was in an exceedingly frightening situation. The first time involved an aggressive dog, and the second involved severe weather.

I was walking down my road one day when I suddenly heard low growling. My neighbor’s dog was walking toward me slowly with his tail held straight out behind him. He walked behind me, and I suddenly lost the ability to move.

I didn’t faint, but I just could not walk or utter a sound. Thankfully, my neighbor was home and called his dog back.

The second time, I was standing in my front yard during a thunderstorm when I saw a funnel cloud. Everyone else was yelling at me to run to the storm shelter, but I was frozen in place. Fear had literally paralyzed me, and my dad had to pick me up and carry me to safety.


I have been suffering from something identical to this and doctors couldn't identify it! You've helped so much. now I can seek treatment.

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