Creepy medical conditions to scare the stethoscope off you

By Mary Ellen Lewis, for MDLinx
Published October 29, 2018

Key Takeaways

For doctors and nurses, Halloween often means something different than it does to the general population: diabetic emergencies, burns from flammable costumes, and injuries from costume-induced trips and falls. But, once in a while, a case comes along that is positively bone-chilling.

We compiled some of the eeriest medical mysteries so you can indulge in some seasonal spookiness.

Talking to the Dead: Nearing Death Awareness

Tending to a near-death patient or relative is rarely easy, but few expect to find themselves in the presence of supernatural forces. Reports of a terminal patient seeing and speaking to loved ones who are themselves long dead have circulated for centuries. While you may initially believe something paranormal is afoot, there is a perfectly sound medical explanation for this phenomenon.

Nearing Death Awareness is a natural part of the dying process in which some patients appear to talk to people who are not physically present, such as a deceased parent, according to the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

In fact, the IANDS finds that "meeting" deceased relatives at the end of life is almost universal. As people near death, they tend to review their lives, sometimes in great detail. They begin to say goodbye to all aspects of life, including favorite activities, roles they have played, and finally the relationships they hold dear.


Living Dead: Cotard Syndrome

It's not every day that people wake up dead. For a very small population, this horrifying prospect is all too real.

Cotard syndrome, sometimes referred to as "walking corpse syndrome," is a rare neurologic condition that causes sufferers to believe that they have died, lost organs or body parts, or have become immortal. Patients typically present with outright denial of their body. They neglect basic self-care and may even starve themselves due to these delusions.

Instances of Cotard syndrome, though extremely infrequent, are more common in patients with pre-existing mental illness.

One case report from the Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice describes a 62-year-old woman with bipolar affective disorder whose experience with Cotard syndrome left her temporarily mute, incontinent, and unable to consume food. Luckily, the help of modern psychiatric drugs and electroconvulsive therapy are effective treatments for this disorder.


Back from the Grave: Terminal Lucidity

Terminal patients showing the unmistakable signs of death—irregular breathing, muscle weakness, poor appetite—are hardly unusual to seasoned medical professionals. Nevertheless, many are understandably alarmed the first time they witness a patient on death's door suddenly perk up and start a conversation.

The end-of-life rally, or terminal lucidity, occurs when a patient on the brink of dying appears to come back to life. Terminal lucidity typically presents in patients with severe mental or neurologic issues, such as dementia or stroke, which makes the phenomenon fairly common among the elderly and terminally ill.

Anna Katharina Ehmer was a woman with developmental challenges who was kept in an institution her entire life, and her death remains one of the most famous instances of terminal lucidity to date.

Ehmer, who allegedly never demonstrated speech capability while alive, is said to have sung "dying songs" during the 30 minutes leading up to her death.

Seeing Ghosts: Bereavement Hallucinations

Loss is a natural part of life, and those who experience it navigate the grieving process in their own way. However, seeing and hearing a deceased loved one would have most people questioning the existence of spirits (or their own sanity).

However, there is good news for anyone haunted by sightings of their deceased loved ones. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience found that one-third to one-half of bereaved spouses report "seeing ghosts."

This is called a bereavement hallucination, sometimes referred to as a "pseudohallucination," which occurs in healthy people experiencing extreme stress or trauma. Death is most certainly a trigger for traumatic stress, especially for those who have lost a longtime spouse.

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