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Waxy Flexibility: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Waxy flexibility is a condition that is associated with catatonia. Learn more about waxy flexibility from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition

Waxy flexibility is a condition in which a person remains in a position for an unusually long time after someone else places him or her in a position. Once placed in a position, the person does not move until someone else comes and moves him or her, even if the position is extremely painful or uncomfortable. A person with waxy flexibility is usually unresponsive or slow to respond to external stimuli, such as the sound of people calling his or her name or seeing a flash of light. Such people also have a decreased response to pain, which is why they are able to stay in the exact same position for a long period of time.

The woman in this image has waxy flexibility. Notice how she is able to hold this position, even though it appears to be uncomfortable. If you look at her face, you will notice that she appears to be staring off into space. This look is common in individuals who are experiencing waxy flexibility.
catatonia

Example

Suppose you walked into a room on your way to a meeting and saw a man standing straight with his left hand pointing toward the sky and his right hand in his pocket. At first, you think nothing of it and continue to go about your day. Two hours later as you make your way to exit the building, you walk through the same room and notice that the man's position has not changed. Curious, you ask someone close by if the man has been standing like this for a very long time. You find out that the man has been in this exact same position for the past five hours.

At first glance, many of us would probably think this man is just pointing toward the sky. However, we would be concerned if we came across a man standing in this exact same position for more than a few minutes.
Waxy flexibility

Eventually, the building owners call 911, fearing that the man is hurt. Despite numerous attempts to get the man to respond or move, he stays in the same position until the emergency medical technicians move his arms and legs so that they can tie him to the gurney. The man's immobility is an example of waxy flexibility.

Waxy Flexibility and Catatonia

Waxy flexibility is a symptom of catatonia. Catatonia is a type of psychomotor disorder, which means that it is an impairment in mental processes that control movement. Catatonia is not a standalone diagnosis, but is a specifier, which is added to the end of a mental diagnosis to indicate the presence of additional features. Catatonia is a specifier of several mental disorders, including:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar I disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Catatonia can also be due to a general medical condition, i.e. rheumatoid arthritis and Huntington's disease.

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