What Is Ataxia?

Ataxia is a muscle and movement disorder that is usually rooted in damage to or deterioration of a part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum, which lies near the base of the brain just above the brain stem, coordinates muscle movement throughout the body. Persons with ataxia may experience problems walking, eating, talking, and maintaining balance. Ataxia is not in itself a disease, but a set of symptoms indicating an underlying medical issue or issues. Potential causes are numerous; medical research has designated 50 or more possible sources of cerebellar and related forms of degeneration.

Ataxia is a relatively rare condition; only about 150,000 Americans suffer from it. Unfortunately, some forms are debilitating, require assistive devices such as wheelchairs, and are potentially fatal. If you or a loved one is having issues with muscle coordination or control, see your Baptist Health medical provider.

What Are the Symptoms of Ataxia?

The symptoms of ataxia vary, depending on the individual and the underlying medical cause. Common symptoms include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulties standing and walking
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Trouble chewing and swallowing food
  • Decline of fine motor skills
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Heart irregularities
  • Tremors

One means of categorizing ataxias is by the part of the nervous system that is damaged or has become dysfunctional. The most common form, called cerebellar ataxia, is located in the cerebellum. Two other, less common categories are sensory ataxia, involving the spinal column and peripheral nervous system, and vestibular ataxia, involving the inner ear and auditory canals.

What Causes Ataxia?

Ataxia causes can also be broadly categorized:

  • Inherited ataxia: Inherited ataxias have a genetic basis. Dominant-gene ataxias require only one parent to carry a particular mutation. Examples include spinocerebellar ataxia and episodic ataxia. Recessive-gene ataxias require that both parents carry a particular mutation. Ataxia telangiectasia and Friedrich’s ataxia are examples.
  • Acquired ataxia: Acquired ataxias occur based on environmental factors, such as injuries or illnesses that damage the cerebellum or a related part of the nervous system. This might include strokes, tumors, head trauma, meningitic infections, autoimmune conditions, hypothyroidism, cerebral palsy, heavy-metal poisoning, drug reactions, vitamin deficiencies, and alcoholism.
  • Idiopathic ataxia: An idiopathic ataxia is one for which there is no identified cause.

How Is Ataxia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing ataxia requires a number of steps:

  • Medical history and documentation of problems you have with muscle movement and coordination
  • Physical and neurological exams focused on balance, coordination, movement, strength, vision, hearing, memory, and concentration
  • Genetic testing for inherited forms of ataxia
  • Blood tests, looking for vitamin and other deficiencies
  • Imaging tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scans, for evidence of blood clots, tumors, or organ shrinkage
  • Lumbar puncture for cerebrospinal fluid samples

How Is Ataxia Treated?

Treating ataxia really means treating the underlying medical cause for the loss of muscle coordination and control. This will depend, of course, on the nature of that cause, how far it has progressed, and whether effective medical treatments exist.

Some treatments focus on symptom management. People with ataxia might be provided with assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, and specialized utensils for eating. In some cases, physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy is prescribed.

The outlook for someone with ataxia depends on the nature of the underlying illness and the extent of its progress. Some forms of ataxia remain relatively stable for a long periods, even improving with time. Others worsen, ultimately proving fatal. Research advances offer some degree of hope.

Can Ataxia be Prevented?

Ataxia is largely unpreventable, if only because it has so many potential causes and can occur at any age. That said, adopting a healthy lifestyle can reduce the possibility of certain medical conditions linked to ataxia, including strokes and cancer, which lowers in turn the risk of any attendant medical conditions.

Learn More About Ataxia at Baptist Health

Ataxia is a rare but serious medical condition that can have a long-lasting impact on how you live. If you or a loved one are experiencing problems with muscle coordination or movement, contact the Baptist Health Neurology team to schedule an appointment. Persons with stroke symptoms should treat them as a medical emergency. Dial 911 or go to the nearest medical-emergency facility.

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