It is common to confuse two medical terms: catalepsy and cataplexy.
Princeton’s “WordNet Search” defines catalepsy as “a trancelike state with loss of voluntary motion and failure to react to stimuli.”
Cataplexy on the other hand – the topic of this article – is defined as a “sudden and transient episode of loss of muscle tone, often triggered by emotions.”
Cataplexy is a rare disorder (about 5 in 10,000 people are afflicted) often associated with narcolepsy. Often – but not always. I suffer from cataplexy, but it has never been determined that I suffer from narcolepsy.
Have You or Has Someone You Love Experienced Something Like This?
It was not often that I would get to play in a school baseball game. I always looked forward to the opportunity. Since I was not athletically inclined, I would usually get stuck out in the outfield somewhere, where nothing much exciting ever happened.
Then one day something exciting did happen. “Crack!” The batter clobbered the ball. It was coming in my direction, and nobody else was around to catch it. It was headed right for my glove. Just before I caught it, I collapsed to the ground. I could not move at all. I was totally paralyzed!
Then several seconds later, I stood up as if nothing had happened. I had not passed out. I was not hurt. There wasn’t anything obviously wrong with me. What was going on?
My Second Episode
A friend had gotten a motorcycle and I was invited to ride on the back. Something went wrong, and I experienced what I had the first time. A total loss of muscular control while remaining clearly and coherently conscious. Mere seconds later, I stood up and was as normal as if nothing had happened.
Episodes Three and Four!
Years passed by without a recurrence of my symptoms. Then I became a parent and as time went on, one of my children made a smart-mouth comment. Instantly, I was upset and went to discipline my child with a good old-fashioned spanking. Instead of doing that, I fell on the floor! My wife was scared stiff.
This happened on another, similar, occasion. I was a puddle of jelly and my muscles became totally unusable. I was aware of everything going on the whole time, but could do nothing. Then I stood up and was back to normal. It were these two episodes that led me to seek medical intervention.
Cataplexy, as the definition above indicates, is a loss of voluntary muscle tone. For many it affects a part of the body, but in my case, my whole body was involved. Although in itself cataplexy is not terribly harmful, a person can be severely hurt if he is doing something risky and takes a spill. This is why it is important to receive medical attention as soon as it is realized something is wrong.
What is the Trigger?
Intense emotions such as anger, excitement, happiness, or fear can trigger an episode of cataplexy. For that reason, many frequent and long-term sufferers, consciously or unconsciously become emotionally detached in order to avoid episodes. Such responses can lessen one’s quality of life and human interactions. For me, episodes lasted merely seconds. For some individuals, they can last for many minutes.
There are medications such as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors that have classically been used to treat cataplexy with success. However, in my case, my mood degenerated and I had to discontinue use. For me, it proved to be no hardship, as I have not had an incident in over twenty years.
Severe sufferers, particularly those who also suffer from narcolepsy, have even been mistaken as having died. In rare cases, individuals were near to being processed for burial.
The Argus; “The woman who died three times,” October 2000.
Sleep Disorder’s Guide; “Cataplexy.”