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What Are the Different Types of Catatonic Disorder?

By J.M. Densing
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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A catatonic disorder, also called catatonia, is a complex of symptoms characterized by severe disturbances in the typical pattern of muscle movement. These disturbances of muscular movement usually are characterized by a motionless state, although they can also manifest as agitated, random motion. The types of catatonic disorder are usually classified by the underlying cause, which can be psychological or physical in nature. They are known as catatonic schizophrenia, depression with catatonic features, and catatonic disorder due to a general medical condition.

The most well-known symptom is a catatonic state, and the primary visible symptom is immobility for long periods of time. People in this state will maintain the same exact position for days, months, or even years. They appear to be unable to move their own bodies and unaware of their condition. In many cases, the position can be changed by another individual moving the patient, who will then maintain the new pose, but, in some instances, the person will resist all attempts to move him or her.

There are also less severe forms of catatonia. One is known as stupor, where motor activity is dramatically slowed but does not stop completely. Another, known as catatonic excitement, is characterized by random, uncontrolled movements that appear to have no purpose or relation to the person's surroundings. These motions may be repetitive, or they may change constantly. There is usually no relation to the person's situation or environment, and the patient is not able to control or stop the motion.

The first type of catatonic disorder with a psychological cause is catatonic schizophrenia. In North America and Europe, this life-long condition is rare. The schizophrenic patient usually appears disconnected from reality, with thought, emotion, and behavior all affected. The patient will often exhibit extreme immobility, and the positions assumed are frequently strange and uncomfortable; he or she will typically appear completely unresponsive and unaware of other people or the general environment. There is no reaction to stimuli, but the body position may be able to be changed by another person. In some cases, the patient may also exhibit catatonic excitement characterized by agitated, purposeless activity that is often bizarre in nature.

Another type of psychologically-caused catatonic disorder is depression with catatonic features. The symptoms experienced by these patients often resemble those of catatonic schizophrenia, but they are usually less severe. The extremely depressed individual may remain immobile for extended periods of time, or they may engage in strenuous activity with no obvious purpose. The patient may need supervision to ensure that he or she doesn't harm himself or herself, or others. The catatonic symptoms are reduced and eventually disappear when the person receives appropriate treatment and experiences relief of the depression.

These symptoms can also have a physical cause, and, when this occurs, it's usually known as a catatonic disorder due to a general medical condition. In these cases, the catatonic symptoms are not caused by psychological issues. They have physical causes, and are brought about by conditions such as neurological diseases, such as encephalitis. The symptoms are often temporary, and can be relieved with treatment of the underlying illness, but, in some cases, they may be permanent. The patient is also more aware of his or her condition with this type of catatonic disorder, and may be distressed by the symptoms.

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