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What Is Ataxia and Should I Be Concerned?

For many people, walking, eating, talking, putting on clothes or even jotting down a note are smooth and seamless tasks. The smoothness of these movements is largely dependent on a section of the brain in the back of your head called the cerebellum.

The cerebellum is like a “mini brain.” It takes in information from other parts of the brain and nervous system to coordinate and control your voluntary movements. However, if there is damage or nerve cells break down and die in the cerebellum, this can cause issues with your movement and coordination called ataxia.

“Ataxia occurs when there is a disruption in the coordination center in your brain,” said Sandra Kuniyoshi, MD, a neurologist with Banner Health Clinic in Mesa, AZ. “Ataxia is not in itself a disease, but a sign of poor coordination and indicative of a medical issue.”

Ataxia is a relatively rare condition, but some forms are debilitating or potentially fatal.

Read on to learn more about symptoms, causes and treatment options.

What are the symptoms of ataxia?

The symptoms of ataxia can vary based on the cause and the person. People with ataxia often have trouble with balance, coordination, eye movements, swallowing and speech. Common symptoms include:

  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Unsteady walk and a tendency to stumble
  • Change in speech, such as slurring
  • Trouble writing and eating
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Tremors
  • Vertigo and dizziness

For some, symptoms can get worse slowly over time. For others, symptoms can come on suddenly. “The rapidity of symptom onset often provides important clues to the cause,” Dr. Kuniyoshi said.

If you aren’t aware of having a condition that causes ataxia and these symptoms suddenly appear, get immediate medical attention. These symptoms can be very concerning because they can also be symptoms of a stroke.

What causes ataxia?

There are several known causes for ataxia; some are genetic, some are acquired, and some have no known cause.

“Stroke and alcohol consumption are common causes, but there are also genetic causes for it, as well,” Dr. Kuniyoshi said.

Genetic, or hereditary causes for ataxia include Friedreich’s ataxia, ataxia-telangiectasia and Wilson’s disease, among others.

Acquired causes occur due to environmental factors or illnesses that damage the cerebellum. This might include head trauma, stroke, alcoholism, autoimmune disease, vitamin deficiencies, cerebral palsy, certain medications and COVID-19.

Sometimes people have sporadic ataxia, or idiopathic ataxia, which means there is no identified cause.

How is ataxia diagnosed?

To diagnose ataxia, your health care provider may use a combination of strategies that include a review of your medical and family history, a physical exam and a neurological evaluation. In some cases, blood work may be required to rule out other disorders.

How is ataxia treated?

The best treatment for your ataxia symptoms depends on the type you have.

“There are tools to lessen the effects of the symptoms and there are treatments to prevent further damage to the cerebellum, such as stroke prevention, alcohol cessation, vitamin supplements and gene therapy,” Dr. Kuniyoshi said.

The treatment for lack of coordination or imbalance is mostly done with the use of adaptive devices such as walkers to help ensure you remain as independent as possible. Physical therapy, speech therapy and medications can help lessen symptoms. These can help with tremors, stiffness and sleep disorders.

What is the outlook for ataxia?

The outlook for those with ataxia can vary greatly depending on the type, underlying cause and severity. If ataxia develops due to an injury or accident, the condition may stabilize or improve, but it may get worse over time. In many cases, getting prompt treatment for acquired ataxia can result in a good outcome and possibly reverse the condition.

Takeaway

Ataxia is a rare but serious medical condition that can have a long-lasting impact on your life. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of ataxia, contact your health care provider. Learning the cause of your ataxia can help you maintain your quality of life.

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