Catatonic Disorder: Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Catatonia is a neuropsychiatric condition characterized by abnormal motor behavior, speech disturbances, and a lack of responsiveness to the environment. It is often associated with various psychiatric and medical disorders. In this article, we will explore the definition, causes, symptoms, and treatment options for catatonia.

Catatonia is a complex neuropsychiatric condition that manifests with a range of motor abnormalities, speech disturbances, and a reduced responsiveness to the surrounding environment. It can occur in various psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder, as well as in certain medical conditions. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for catatonia is crucial in providing appropriate care and support to individuals affected by this condition.

1. What is Catatonia?

Catatonia is a neuropsychiatric syndrome that is characterized by a cluster of symptoms affecting motor behavior, speech, and cognition. It was first described in the late 19th century by German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum. People with catatonia may experience a wide range of symptoms, including stupor, mutism, repetitive movements, and waxy flexibility.

2. Causes of Catatonia

Catatonia can arise as a result of various underlying causes, including psychiatric disorders and medical conditions.

Psychiatric Disorders

Catatonia is commonly associated with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. In these cases, catatonia is considered a subtype or specifier of the primary psychiatric condition. The exact mechanisms by which these disorders contribute to the development of catatonia are not fully understood.

Medical Conditions

Catatonia can also occur secondary to certain medical conditions. These include neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and encephalitis, as well as metabolic disturbances, autoimmune disorders, and drug-induced states. In some cases, catatonia may be the result of a primary medical condition affecting the central nervous system.

3. Symptoms of Catatonia

The symptoms of catatonia can vary in severity and presentation. They can be broadly categorized into motor abnormalities, speech disturbances, and cognitive impairment.

Motor Abnormalities

One of the hallmark features of catatonia is the presence of abnormal motor behaviors. These can include stupor, where the individual remains motionless for long periods, as well as catalepsy, which is characterized by the maintenance of rigid postures even when they are physically manipulated. Other motor abnormalities may include stereotypy (repetitive, purposeless movements), posturing, and negativism (resistance or opposition to instructions).

Speech Disturbances

Catatonia often affects speech and can lead to a reduction or complete absence of verbal communication, a condition known as mutism. Echolalia, where the individual repeats words or phrases, and echopraxia, where they imitate the movements of others, are also observed in some cases.

Cognitive Impairment

In addition to motor and speech disturbances, catatonia can also impact cognitive function. Individuals may experience difficulties in thinking, concentrating, and making decisions. They may exhibit disorientation, confusion, and memory problems, which can further contribute to their impaired ability to interact with their surroundings.

4. Diagnosis of Catatonia

The diagnosis of catatonia involves a comprehensive evaluation, including a thorough medical examination and the fulfillment of specific diagnostic criteria.

Medical Evaluation

To rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to catatonia, a medical evaluation is essential. This may involve blood tests, imaging studies, and other investigations to identify any potential medical causes.

Diagnostic Criteria

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides specific criteria for diagnosing catatonia. These criteria include the presence of at least three out of a list of 12 catatonic symptoms, along with evidence that the symptoms are not due to another medical condition.

5. Treatment of Catatonia

The treatment of catatonia depends on the underlying cause and the severity of symptoms. Prompt intervention is crucial to prevent complications and promote recovery.


Benzodiazepines, such as lorazepam or diazepam, are often the first-line treatment for catatonia. These medications help to alleviate symptoms by targeting the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain, which helps regulate neuronal excitability.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

In severe cases of catatonia or when other treatments have been ineffective, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be considered. ECT involves the administration of a controlled electric current to the brain, inducing a seizure. This procedure can have a rapid and significant effect on catatonic symptoms.

Other Medications

In addition to benzodiazepines and ECT, other medications may be used to manage catatonia. These can include antipsychotic medications, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants, depending on the underlying condition and individual patient factors.

6. Prognosis and Outlook

The prognosis for catatonia varies depending on the underlying cause, the duration of symptoms, and the promptness of treatment. With appropriate intervention, many individuals with catatonia experience significant improvement in their symptoms and can regain functionality. However, the long-term outlook may also be influenced by the presence of any underlying psychiatric or medical conditions.


Catatonia is a neuropsychiatric condition characterized by abnormal motor behavior, speech disturbances, and reduced responsiveness. It can occur in various psychiatric disorders and medical conditions. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential for managing catatonia effectively and improving outcomes for individuals affected by this condition.


Can catatonia occur in children?

Yes, catatonia can occur in children, although it is relatively rare. It is often associated with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder.

Is catatonia reversible?

In many cases, catatonia is reversible with appropriate treatment. Early intervention is crucial for a favorable outcome.

Are there any self-help strategies for managing catatonic symptoms?

While self-help strategies may not be sufficient to manage catatonia on their own, maintaining a structured routine, engaging in relaxation techniques, and seeking support from loved ones can be beneficial.

Can catatonia be a life-threatening condition?

In severe cases, catatonia can be life-threatening. Prompt medical attention is necessary to prevent complications such as dehydration, malnutrition, and blood clots.

Is catatonia the same as being in a coma?

No, catatonia is not the same as being in a coma. Coma refers to a state of unconsciousness, while catatonia involves altered motor behavior and reduced responsiveness.


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  2. Caroff SN, Ungvari GS, Cunningham Owens DG, et al. Catatonia and its treatment: a review. Schizophr Bull. 2017;43(2):236-239. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbw193
  3. Rosebush PI, Mazurek MF. Catatonia and its treatment. Schizophr Bull. 2010;36(2):239-242. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbp152
  4. Fink M, Taylor MA. Catatonia: A Clinician’s Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment. Cambridge University Press; 2003.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 5th ed. American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.

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