CNI Movement Disorders Center
Education & Information
Facts about Ataxia
Ataxia is the inability to maintain normal postures and perform normal movements. Movements are characterized by loss of coordination of one’s hands, an unsteady gait and slurred speech. Ataxia may affect any part of the body and it can occur at any age. It can usually be categorized into the following two types, which are each caused by different problems:
Motor: This type of ataxia is usually caused by problems with the cerebellum (the posterior portion of the brain responsible for coordination).
Sensory: This type stems from disturbances in the sensory system (abnormal perception of a position of a body part in space) and vestibular system (abnormal balance).
A neurologist can usually differentiate between the two types of ataxia: motor and sensory.
There are many different causes of Ataxia. Some are non-inherited ataxias are caused by a brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, toxins, vitamin E deficiency and infections. There are also inherited types of Ataxia.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms and their order of occurrence vary according to the type of ataxia a patient has. Typically, problems with balance and coordination occur first. Lack of coordination with one’s hands, arms and legs as well as slurring of speech are other common symptoms patients may notice early on. Signs of these symptoms may include:
- Walking with an unusually long gait
- Swaying one’s arms and torso while standing still
- An inability to perform tasks requiring fine motor control
- Slow or abnormal eye movements or an involuntary movement in which the eyes continually move back and forth (nystagmus)
As time goes on, Ataxia can affect speech and swallowing. Respiratory complications can be fatal for a person who is bed-bound or who has severe swallowing problems. Patients with Friedreich's ataxia may also develop serious cardiac problems.
There is no medicine to specifically treat ataxia or the symptoms of ataxia. Certain medications, such as Clonazepam, may help reduce tremor and balance problems. Other medications that may be prescribed are Phenytoin and Acetazolamide.
Treatment must be individualized, based upon the cause, whether genetic or non-in-herited, and also based upon individual symptoms. Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapies are important in helping patients with their symptoms. To help patients who are having difficulty with coordination, adaptive devices are available to assist with day-to-day tasks. These may include a cane, crutches, walker, scooter or wheelchair. Devices to assist with writing, eating and self-care as well as communication devices for those with impaired speech also may be helpful.
For more information, contact the National Ataxia Foundation at www.ataxia.org or www.wemove.org.