Catalepsy (Gr. kaтaλndφις, seizure), a non-febrile affection, occurring in paroxysms, and characterized by a sudden deprivation of intelligence, sensation, and voluntary motion.
The disease is so seldom met with that some well known writers have doubted its existence, and have attributed the recorded cases to imposture. Bourdin (Traite de la catalepsie, Paris, 1841), who collected all the recorded facts within his reach, was able to unite but 38 well characterized observations. The attack is often preceded by headache, confusion of mind, loss of memory, etc.; more commonly, however, nothing of the kind has been noticed. During the paroxysm the patient retains the position and expression of countenance he had at the moment of the seizure; the face is commonly pale, sometimes slightly flushed; the pupils are dilated, but contract on exposure to a strong light; the limbs can be moved with the exertion of a little force, and retain the new position which may be given them; if the patient is standing and is pushed, he makes no effort to save himself; if placed in a painful and constrained attitude, it is retained during the paroxysm. The unvarying, motionless attitude and fixed expression give a strange and corpselike look to the sufferer. The duration of the attack is variable; sometimes it lasts but a few minutes, sometimes 12 or 14 hours; cases are recorded in which it has been prolonged to 20 or even 30 days.
Many cases occur in which the attack is less characteristically marked, or in which a portion only of the symptoms is present. Although deprived of speech and voluntary motion, the patient is more orless conscious of what is passing around him. In Duncan's "Medical Commentaries," a case is related of a woman who in this state of partial catalepsy was taken for dead, and who was perfectly conscious of what was occurring around her, while her body was being laid out and prepared for interment. In ecstasy, a disease allied to catalepsy, and which by imperceptible degrees passes into it, the patient is insensible to everything about him, while the mind is absorbed in some one object or train of ideas; the muscles are either relaxed or in a state of almost tetanic rigidity, while the patient speaks and sings, perhaps with greater readiness and ease than in his natural condition. This condition is frequently occasioned in nervous and hysterical persons by religious excitement, and is often produced in a similar class of persons by animal magnetism. It is one much more commonly assumed by impostors than true catalepsy.
Both catalepsy and ecstasy seem to be closely allied to hysteria; they occur for the most part in young females of nervous habit, and both the one and the other often commence or terminate in it; occasionally, however, as is likewise the case with some of the more ordinary manifestations of hysteria, they have their origin in serious disease of the brain. The age and history of the patient will help the intelligent physician to discriminate such cases. Some strong moral excitement is generally the immediate cause of the disease, but when it is already formed, or when the predisposition to it is very strong, a most trifling cause - a sudden noise, the surprise of an unexpected visit, etc. - may induce a paroxysm. In itself the disease is never fatal, and morbid anatomy throws no light upon it. In regard to the treatment, in the interval between the paroxysms means should be employed to improve the general health and give tone to the nervous system. During the paroxysm the feet may be immersed in a mustard foot bath and cold applications made to the head; of these, where it can be borne, the cold douche is best.