What is the Difference Between Cerebral Palsy and Mental Retardation?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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Cerebral palsy and mental retardation are two different conditions that each affect brain function. While some individuals with cerebral palsy may also have mental retardation, the two conditions are often incorrectly used interchangeably; they each have different symptoms, causes, and severity. Cerebral palsy is a condition in which damage in the brain prevents a person from being able to fully control physical movements, while mental retardation refers to a condition in which a person does not have fully developed intellectual ability as compared to other people in his or her age group.

One main difference between cerebral palsy and mental retardation involvess the symptoms. Symptoms of cerebral palsy are generally focused on physical impairments. Individuals with the condition may have difficulty controlling their muscle dexterity and their limb movements may be overly loose or stiff. They may also problems with mouth function, such as not being able to easily swallow or having involuntary drooling. Mental retardation symptoms tend to be categorized primarily on general intellectual levels and typically includes an individual not being able to perform regular tasks on his or her own and function on an everyday basis.


The amount of knowledge concerning the causes of each of the conditions is another difference between cerebral palsy and mental retardation. Cerebral palsy is thought to possibly be caused by factors that cause brain damage to a fetus while in the womb or shortly after birth. The damage may be caused by infections, such as rubella, toxoplasmosis, syphilis, chickenpox, or cytomegalovirus, present in the expectant mother during pregnancy; a stroke in the fetus due to clots in the placenta or abnormal blood vessels; exposure to toxins during pregnancy; or cases of viral encephalitis or meningitis in newborns. Less is known about the causes of mental retardation and many estimate that in the majority of cases the cause is unknown. Possible causes are thought to be genetic abnormalities, such as inherited neurological or chromosomal disorders.

Another difference between cerebral palsy and mental retardation is possible treatment options. Cerebral palsy’s stiff limbs may be reduced with the use of muscle relaxant medications. Physical therapy may also be implemented to help an individual with the condition move and walk more easily and surgery may be performed in more severe cases to improve muscle coordination. Mental retardation treatment often consists of therapy or guidance to help the individual acclimate to common tasks and gain confidence in order to fully perform to his or her maximum intellectual capacity.


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