The kinds of symptoms that are utilized to make a diagnosis of schizophrenia differ between affected people and may change from one year to the next within the same person as the disease progresses. Different subtypes of schizophrenia are defined according to the most significant and predominant characteristics present in each person at each point in time. The result is that one person may be diagnosed with different subtypes over the course of his illness.

Schizophrenia: Paranoid Subtype

The defining feature of the paranoid subtype (also known as paranoid schizophrenia) is the presence of auditory hallucinations or prominent delusional thoughts about persecution or conspiracy. However, people with this subtype may be more functional in their ability to work and engage in relationships than people with other subtypes of schizophrenia. The reasons are not entirely clear, but may partly reflect that people suffering from this subtype often do not exhibit symptoms until later in life and have achieved a higher level of functioning before the onset of their illness. People with the paranoid subtype may appear to lead fairly normal lives by successful management of their disorder.

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common subtype.

People diagnosed with the paranoid subtype may not appear odd or unusual and may not readily discuss the symptoms of their illness. Typically, the hallucinations and delusions revolve around some characteristic theme, and this theme often remains fairly consistent over time. A person’s temperaments and general behaviors often are related to the content of the disturbance of thought. For example, people who believe that they are being persecuted unjustly may be easily angered and become hostile. Often, paranoid schizophrenics will come to the attention of mental health professionals only when there has been some major stress in their life that has caused an increase in their symptoms. At that point, sufferers may recognize the need for outside help or act in a fashion to bring attention to themselves.

Since there may be no observable features, the evaluation requires sufferers to be somewhat open to discussing their thoughts. If there is a significant degree of suspiciousness or paranoia present, people may be very reluctant to discuss these issues with a stranger.

There is a broad spectrum to the nature and severity of symptoms that may be present at any one time. When symptoms are in a phase of exacerbation or worsening, there may be some disorganization of the thought processes. At this time, people may have more trouble than usual remembering recent events, speaking coherently or generally behaving in an organized, rational manner. While these features are more characteristic of other subtypes, they can be present to differing degrees in people with the paranoid subtype, depending upon the current state of their illness. Supportive friends or family members often may be needed at such times to help the symptomatic person get professional help.

Schizophrenia: Disorganized Subtype

As the name implies, this subtype’s predominant feature is disorganization of the thought processes. As a rule, hallucinations and delusions are less pronounced, although there may be some evidence of these symptoms. These people may have significant impairments in their ability to maintain the activities of daily living. Even the more routine tasks, such as dressing, bathing or brushing teeth, can be significantly impaired or lost.

Often, there is impairment in the emotional processes of the individual. For example, these people may appear emotionally unstable, or their emotions may not seem appropriate to the context of the situation. They may fail to show ordinary emotional responses in situations that evoke such responses in healthy people. Mental health professionals refer to this particular symptom as blunted or flat affect. Additionally, these people may have an inappropriately jocular or giddy appearance, as in the case of a patient who chuckles inappropriately through a funeral service or other solemn occasion.

People diagnosed with this subtype also may have significant impairment in their ability to communicate effectively. At times, their speech can become virtually incomprehensible, due to disorganized thinking. In such cases, speech is characterized by problems with the utilization and ordering of words in conversational sentences, rather than with difficulties of enunciation or articulation. In the past, the term hebephrenic has been used to describe this subtype.

Schizophrenia: Catatonic Subtype

The predominant clinical features seen in the catatonic subtype involve disturbances in movement. Affected people may exhibit a dramatic reduction in activity, to the point that voluntary movement stops, as in catatonic stupor. Alternatively, activity can dramatically increase, a state known as catatonic excitement.

Other disturbances of movement can be present with this subtype. Actions that appear relatively purposeless but are repetitively performed, also known as stereotypic behavior, may occur, often to the exclusion of involvement in any productive activity.

Patients may exhibit an immobility or resistance to any attempt to change how they appear. They may maintain a pose in which someone places them, sometimes for extended periods of time. This symptom sometimes is referred to as waxy flexibility. Some patients show considerable physical strength in resistance to repositioning attempts, even though they appear to be uncomfortable to most people.

Affected people may voluntarily assume unusual body positions, or manifest unusual facial contortions or limb movements. This set of symptoms sometimes is confused with another disorder called tardive dyskinesia, which mimics some of these same, odd behaviors. Other symptoms associated with the catatonic subtype include an almost parrot-like repeating of what another person is saying (echolalia) or mimicking the movements of another person (echopraxia). Echolalia and echopraxia also are seen in Tourette’s Syndrome.

Schizophrenia: Undifferentiated Subtype

The undifferentiated subtype is diagnosed when people have symptoms of schizophrenia that are not sufficiently formed or specific enough to permit classification of the illness into one of the other subtypes.

The symptoms of any one person can fluctuate at different points in time, resulting in uncertainty as to the correct subtype classification. Other people will exhibit symptoms that are remarkably stable over time but still may not fit one of the typical subtype pictures. In either instance, diagnosis of the undifferentiated subtype may best describe the mixed clinical syndrome.

Schizophrenia: Residual Subtype

This subtype is diagnosed when the patient no longer displays prominent symptoms. In such cases, the schizophrenic symptoms generally have lessened in severity. Hallucinations, delusions or idiosyncratic behaviors may still be present, but their manifestations are significantly diminished in comparison to the acute phase of the illness.

Just as the symptoms of schizophrenia are diverse, so are its ramifications. Different kinds of impairment affect each patient’s life to varying degrees. Some people require custodial care in state institutions, while others are gainfully employed and can maintain an active family life. However, the majority of patients are at neither of these extremes. Most will have a waxing and waning course marked with some hospitalizations and some assistance from outside support sources.

People having a higher level of functioning before the start of their illness typically have a better outcome. In general, better outcomes are associated with brief episodes of symptoms worsening followed by a return to normal functioning. Women have a better prognosis for higher functioning than men, as do patients with no apparent structural abnormalities of the brain.

In contrast, a poorer prognosis is indicated by a gradual or insidious onset, beginning in childhood or adolescence; structural brain abnormalities, as seen on imaging studies; and failure to return to prior levels of functioning after acute episodes.

» Next in Series:Causes of Schizophrenia