Waxy flexibility is a strange condition in which people can be moved, as if they are made of softened wax, into different positions which they then hold for a length of time. The positions can be quite extreme or uncomfortable, but the person will hold them and remain motionless. Waxy flexibility is one of a variety of symptoms associated with the condition catatonia. Catatonia and waxy flexibility can occur in people who have mental health problems such as depression and mania. Sometimes catatonia may be associated with the serious mental illness known as schizophrenia, in which case the disease is described as catatonic schizophrenia.
Even though it is commonly recognized as being one of a range of catatonic schizophrenia symptoms, waxy flexibility more often occurs in people who have a mood disorder with catatonic behavior. Symptoms of catatonia, including waxy flexibility, can also be caused by drugs, problems in the brain and medical conditions such as low sodium levels. It is not fully understood exactly how waxy flexibility develops in the body, but some researchers think it may arise following chemical changes in the brain. Others think it might be a throwback to the days when humans were pursued by predatory animals, resulting in extreme fear. In this kind of situation, involving dangerous animals which are alerted by movement, becoming as still as a waxwork figure could be a very useful way to avoid being eaten.
People with waxy flexibility take up an immobile posture and show a decreased stimuli response, meaning that they seem unaware of what is going on around them. Even when a doctor moves one of their limbs, patients do not respond but simply take up the new position and hold it. Unfortunately, this extreme lack of mobility can have serious consequences.
Complications can arise when patients fail to move for long periods, with the most obvious one being an extreme lack of food and fluids. The skin can also suffer, with constant pressure and possibly incontinence causing ulcers to develop. Immobility can also lead to blood clots forming in the legs and lungs, and these can sometimes be fatal. Pneumonia and heart attacks could also occur.
The treatment of waxy flexibility and catatonia can be difficult. Medication may be helpful in some cases, but nursing care is also important. Food and liquids can be be administered through a vein. Most patients recover but catatonia often recurs, especially in people who have the condition in association with a mood disorder.