Catatonia: a syndrome appears, disappears, and is rediscovered

Can J Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;54(7):437-45. doi: 10.1177/070674370905400704.


Catatonia is the psychiatric syndrome of disturbed motor functions amid disturbances in mood and thought first described in 1874. It was quickly found in 10% to 38% of psychiatric populations. After it was tied to schizophrenia as a type in the psychiatric classification, its recognition became increasingly limited and by the 1980s questions were asked as to where the catatonics had gone. The decline is largely owing to the change in venue for psychiatric practice from asylum to office, the rejection of physical examination, and the dependence on item rating scales for diagnosis. In the 1970s, broad surveys again showed that catatonia was as common as before among patients with mania and depression, and as a toxic response to neuroleptic drugs. The latter recognition, that the neuroleptic malignant syndrome is the same syndrome as malignant catatonia, and is effectively treated as such, sparked a renewed interest. Clinicians developed rating scales to identify the catatonia syndrome and applied the immediate relief afforded by a barbiturate or a benzodiazepine as a diagnostic test, the lorazepam test. Effective treatments were described as high doses of benzodiazepines and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Surveys using catatonia rating scales showed catatonia to have many faces. Catatonia is presently limited to a type of schizophrenia in the psychiatric classification. Its recognition as a disorder of its own, such as delirium and dementia, should now be recognized. This experience reinforced the utility of the medical model for diagnosis. An application for melancholia is described.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antipsychotic Agents / adverse effects
  • Barbiturates / therapeutic use
  • Benzodiazepines / therapeutic use
  • Bipolar Disorder / diagnosis
  • Bipolar Disorder / epidemiology
  • Catatonia / classification
  • Catatonia / diagnosis*
  • Catatonia / epidemiology
  • Catatonia / therapy
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy
  • Humans
  • Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Schizophrenia, Catatonic / diagnosis
  • Schizophrenia, Catatonic / epidemiology
  • Syndrome


  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines