Definition

What is ataxia?

Ataxia is typically defined as the presence of abnormal, uncoordinated movements. This usage describes signs & symptoms without reference to specific diseases. An unsteady, staggering gait is described as an ataxic gait because walking is uncoordinated and appears to be ‘not ordered’. Many motor activities may be described as ataxic if they appear to others, or are perceived by patients, as uncoordinated.

Ataxia can also refer to a group of neurological disorders in which motor behavior appears uncoordinated. Walking, speaking clearly, swallowing, writing, reading, and other activities that require fine motor control may be abnormal in patients with ataxia. Ataxia may result from abnormalities in different parts of the nervous system or different parts of the body, such as ataxic movements due to orthopedic injuries or pain from arthritis or muscle injury.

How common is ataxia?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of ataxia?

The common symptoms of ataxia are:

  • Poor coordination
  • Unsteady walk and a tendency to stumble
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks, such as eating, writing or buttoning a shirt
  • Change in speech
  • Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Difficulty swallowing

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Lose balance
  • Lose muscle coordination in a hand, arm or leg
  • Have difficulty walking
  • Slur your speech
  • Have difficulty swallowing

Causes

What causes ataxia?

Ataxia may result from abnormalities in different parts of the nervous system, including the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral nervous system (roots and nerves that connect the central nervous system to muscles, skin, and the outside world). When patients experience abnormal walking or uncoordinated use of their hands or arms, dysfunction of the cerebellum is often responsible. The cerebellum is a rounded structure attached to the brainstem with a central portion (vermis) and two lateral lobes (cerebellar hemispheres). It sits beneath the back of the cerebral hemispheres (occipital cortices). The outer surface of the cerebellum is a continuous layer of nerve cells called the cerebellar cortex. The cortex is a three-layered sheet of neurons that are extensively interconnected and have a highly regular geometric organization. The cerebellar cortex receives information from most parts of the body and from many other regions of the brain. The cerebellum integrates this information and sends signals back to the rest of the brain that enable accurate and well coordinated movements.

Although unsteady gait may result from problems in different parts of the nervous system or of the body, abnormal walking due to cerebellar dysfunction has distinct features that are usually recognizable. Persons with an ataxic gait due to cerebellar dysfunction keep their legs further apart than normal, referred to clinically as a ‘broadened base’. They often stagger and resemble persons who have ingested excessive alcohol. The resemblance of ataxia to inebriation is not a coincidence as alcohol is known to affect the main nerve cells in the cerebellum. Although brief alcohol-induced staggering is usually reversible, repeated exposure to high doses of alcohol may cause degeneration of neurons in the cerebellum and result in persistent ataxia. Purkinje neurons are unusually susceptible to different forms of injury, including other toxins, prolonged seizures, and lack of oxygen. Cerebellar ataxia differs from gait problems due to abnormalities in other parts of the nervous system, such as the abnormal gait seen in Parkinson’s disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus, or different forms of spasticity in the legs. Cerebellar ataxia is also distinguishable from abnormal walking due to pain and/or muscle or orthopedic abnormalities in the hips, legs, or feet.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for ataxia?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is ataxia diagnosed?

If you have ataxia, your doctor will look for a treatable cause. Besides conducting a physical exam and a neurological exam, including checking your memory and concentration, vision, hearing, balance, coordination, and reflexes, your doctor might request laboratory tests, including:

  • Imaging studies. A CT scan or MRI of your brain might help determine potential causes. An MRI can sometimes show shrinkage of the cerebellum and other brain structures in people with ataxia. It may also show other treatable findings, such as a blood clot or benign tumor, that could be pressing on your cerebellum.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A needle is inserted into your lower back (lumbar region) between two lumbar bones (vertebrae) to remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid, which surrounds and protects your brain and spinal cord, is sent to a laboratory for testing.
  • Genetic testing. Your doctor might recommend genetic testing to determine whether you or your child has the gene mutation that causes one of the hereditary ataxic conditions. Gene tests are available for many but not all of the hereditary ataxias.

How is ataxia treated?

There’s no treatment specifically for ataxia. In some cases, treating the underlying cause resolves the ataxia, such as stopping medications that cause it. In other cases, such as ataxia that results from chickenpox or other viral infection, it’s likely to resolve on its own. Your doctor might recommend treatment to manage symptoms, such as pain, fatigue or dizziness or adaptive devices or therapies to help with your ataxia.

Adaptive devices

Ataxia caused by conditions such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy might not be treatable. In that case, your doctor may be able to recommend adaptive devices. They include:

  • Hiking sticks or walkers for walking
  • Modified utensils for eating
  • Communication aids for speaking

Therapies

You might benefit from certain therapies, including:

  • Physical therapy to help your coordination and enhance your mobility
  • Occupational therapy to help you with daily living tasks, such as feeding yourself
  • Speech therapy to improve speech and aid swallowing

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage ataxia?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: December 27, 2017 | Last Modified: December 27, 2017

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