What Is Psychomotor Retardation? How Is It Treated?

Slow Speech and Movements Can Be a Symptom of Bipolar Depression

man signing bill
A symptom of psychomotor retardation is intellectual difficulty, such as unusual difficulty with calculating bills or tips. Tetra Images/Getty Images

What Is Psychomotor Retardation?

Psychomotor retardation (also called psychomotor impairment) is a visible slowing of physical activity such as movement and speech. It may have either a mental or organic, cause. Psychomotor retardation occurs as a symptom of many disorders ranging from genetic syndromes to mental illness to medications. It can also be a symptom of muscular degeneration or neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Pyschomotor Retardardation?

People with psychomotor retardation move, speak, and act more slowly than normal. Examples may include slow talking or long pauses before beginning to talk, taking a long time to cross a room or slow chewing of food and waiting longer than usual between bites. Additional symptoms may include:

  • slowed thinking processes
  • difficulty with gross and fine motor tasks such as walking, writing, or self care
  • difficulty with hand-eye coordination, making it more difficult to catch and throw or perform tasks such as putting on makeup
  • intellectual difficulties such as unusual difficulty with following or engaging in conversation, calculating bills or tips, or completing schoolwork
  • inability to perform tasks such as grocery shopping, exercise, etc.

While psychomotor retardation may be relatively mild -- particularly in familiar environments -- it may become quite severe.

In very severe cases, it can resemble catatonia (inability to move). 

What Causes Psychomotor Retardation?

There are a number of possible physical causes of psychomotor retardation which should be carefully examined. For example, medications intended to treat depression can lead to psychomotor difficulties.

In addition, some neurological and mental disorders (Parkinsons, Dementia, and Schizophrenia in particular) can lead to psychomotor retardation. 

The most common cause of psychomotor retardation, however, is depression -- particularly depression related to bipolar disorder. Some literature suggests that more severe psychomotor retardation may indicate more severe depression

How Is Psychomotor Retardation Treated?

Medication is usually the first form of treatment, but it is important to determine whether anti-depressant or mood stabilizing medications may actually be causing the problem. Benzodiazepines and antipsychotics, for example, may help reduce anxiety -- which is often a major problem in depression -- but these medications are also known to sometimes cause psychomotor retardation. Adding stimulants may help alleviate psychomotor retardation in such cases, but stimulants may bring on manic or hypomanic episodes which can result in psychomotor agitation (constant, purposeless movement). 

Because the right combination of anti-anxiety medications and stimulants can be difficult to manage, many practitioners choose to treat psychomotor retardation with mood stabilizers such as lithium, lamotrigine, carbamazepine, and valproic acid.

  These may be combined with atypical antipsychotic medications such as aripiprazole.

In very severe cases, electroconvulsive (shock) therapy may be an option. By intentionally creating seizures in the brain, this form of treatment is often successful in ending major depression.  

Once the right combination of medications or other physical treatments is in place, cognitive (talk) therapy, physical therapy, and other non-medical methods may be used to support long term mood stabilization.


Bennabi, D. et al. Psychomotor Retardation in Depression: A Systematic Review of Diagnostic, Pathophysiologic, and Therapeutic Implications. BioMed Research International, Volume 2013.

Buyukdura JS, McClintock SM, Croarkin PE (2010). Psychomotor retardation in depression: Biological underpinnings, measurement, and treatment. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, Oct 31, doi:10.10.16.

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