For a long time one of the great universal fears of humanity was to be buried alive, even to this day. Unfortunately this fear was not unfounded, since there are numerous known cases of people, apparently dead, being buried while still alive.

This phenomenon of apparent death is known as catalepsy , and although nowadays there are numerous ways to confirm the death of a person, in the dawn of medicine these cases were very numerous.

What is catalepsy?

Catalepsy is categorized as a disorder of the central nervous system . It is characterised by the fact that the person suffers from a paralysis of the body, together with a hardening and tensioning of the muscles, being unable to perform any kind of movement.

Another distinctive sign of catalepsy is that the person experiences a reduction in sensitivity to pain . But the most striking thing about this disorder is that the person is absolutely aware of everything, coming to hear or see everything that happens around him.

This disorder has traditionally been known as “apparent death,” gaining its reputation from a series of cases in which some people were buried alive in a state of catalepsy, and were thought to have died.

The cause of this confusion is that a person in a state of catalepsy can spend from a few minutes to a few weeks paralyzed , without showing obvious signs of life.

Although at first glance it may seem like a terrifying disorder, since it appears suddenly and the person remains conscious, is not a serious condition and the person can recover regularly once the condition is determined. On the other hand, there have been cases of catalepsy in healthy people. Its appearance is usually related to other disorders such as severe diagnoses of schizophrenia, hysteria and in some psychoses.


As mentioned in the previous point, a person without any type of disorder or illness may suffer an episode of catalepsy; it is more likely to occur after he or she suffers some crisis of anxiety, tiredness or lumbar afflictions .

To avoid possible confusion with fainting or even believing that someone has died, it is important to know the symptoms of catalepsy. These are:

  • Body stiffness
  • Pallor
  • Decrease or cancellation of response to visual stimuli
  • Insensitivity to pain
  • Slowness of body functions such as breathing and heart rate
  • Lack of control over own muscles
  • Appearance of waxy flexibility, in which when another person moves some part of his body he stays in that position.

Thus, catalepsy is expressed through motor and physiological symptoms. This, as we shall see, causes it to present some characteristics similar to other diseases, as we shall see.


Catalepsy cannot be considered a disorder or disease per se, but rather a symptom or product of some nervous system pathology, such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s. Likewise, is a very characteristic symptom of certain psychotic disorders , especially schizophrenia.

In addition to this, some people undergoing rehabilitation treatment for alcohol, drugs or some type of narcotic are also susceptible to suffering a catalepsy crisis, so that the abstinence syndrome may be a probable origin of catalepsy .

While these are the main causes of this disorder, there are a number of situations in which a person is more likely to experience this phenomenon. These are:

  • Obesity
  • Major depression
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Catalepsy after experiencing very intense emotions

In any case, if a person suffers any incident of this type it is necessary for him/her to go to a medical center to rule out any possibility of associated disorder or pathology.


After experiencing a case of catalepsy, it is necessary to perform an urgent and diagnostic evaluation by means of techniques such as electroencephalograms (EEG) or electrocardiograms (EEC). The purpose of these is to make a correct assessment of the disease and, above all, to exclude the possibility of death.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a specific treatment for catalepsy. Therefore, it is of vital importance for the clinician to specify what the cause has been, and according to the final diagnosis an action process will be carried out to restore the patient’s health.

When the diagnosis is primarily associated with a disease of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s, the guideline is to administer to the patient a series of muscle relaxants whose benefits have already been demonstrated in these cases.

However, when the catalepsy is caused by some psychotic disorder, the protocol of action includes the administration of antipsychotic drugs by the medical staff , together with psychotherapy sessions directed by psychologists or psychiatrists.

In addition, there are a number of useful home remedies for when the episode is relatively recurrent and has already been diagnosed. This remedy involves immersing the person’s feet in a hot bath, massaging the spine and abdomen.

Differences between catalepsy and waxy flexibility

As can be seen in the point of symptoms, waxy flexibility constitutes a symptom within catalepsy , and although on many occasions these terms are used interchangeably, they do not constitute exactly the same alteration and reveal fundamental differences.

Just as catalepsy constitutes a disorder of the nervous system, waxy flexibility is a characteristic psychomotor symptom of certain psychic disorders such as catatonic schizophrenia.

Like catalepsy, waxy flexibility reduces a person’s ability to move, as does a reduction in response to external stimuli, suppressing the will to react and keeping the person immobile.

However, as the name of this phenomenon describes, even though the person has no control over his or her own movements, if a third person tries to move a section of his or her body, he or she will perform the movement but will remain static in the position in which it was left .

Therefore, the person’s body adopts the posture of a mannequin or a wax dummy, being only able to move when another person executes the movement for it or modifies its position.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hattori K, Uchino S, Isosaka T, et al. “Fyn is required for haloperidol-induced catalepsy in mice”. J. Biol. Chem.
  • Sanberg PR, Bunsey MD, Giordano M, Norman AB (1988). “The catalepsy test: its ups and downs”. Behav. Neurosci.