Ataxia

By:    Published: August 22, 2012

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If you’re experiencing problems with muscle coordination, there are plenty of potential causes. This symptom, known as ataxia, is associated with many different diseases and disorders. Fortunately, ataxia is not always serious, and will sometimes go away on its own. Read this article to learn more about ataxia and how it’s treated.

Definition

Ataxia is a lack of muscle coordination due to problems with the parts of the nervous system that control movement and balance. Different areas of the body can be affected by ataxia, including the eyes, fingers, hands, arms, legs, body or even speech or the ability to swallow.

Symptoms

Ataxia is actually a symptom in itself – it is usually linked to a neurological disorder. However, this symptom may appear in a variety of different ways, including:

  • Poor coordination
  • Unsteady walking or a tendency to stumble
  • Changes in speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements
  • Difficulty with fine-motor tasks, such as writing or buttoning a shirt

It’s important to note that the lack of muscle coordination associated ataxia may develop very suddenly or slowly worsen over time. In addition, these changes often occur when someone is in their 20s or 30s, although older individuals can also develop ataxia.

Causes

Some cases of ataxia are hereditary. Hereditary ataxia is caused by a defect in a certain gene. This defect causes the gene to product abnormal proteins which negatively affect nerve cells, causing them to function improperly and degenerate over time. Depending on what type of defect the gene has, different areas of the body may be affected. Hereditary ataxia usually worsens as the disease progresses.

The second type of ataxia is sporadic ataxia, meaning that the condition is acquired rather than hereditary. The most common causes of sporadic ataxia include:

  • Stroke: Brain cells can die when the blood supply to part of your brain is reduced during a stroke, causing ataxia.
  • Head trauma: A blow to the head could cause damage to the brain or spinal cord that results in sudden-onset ataxia.
  • Cerebral palsy: This refers to a group of disorders that are caused by damage to a child’s brain that occurs before, during or shortly after birth. The damages result in problems coordinating body movements.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS): This chronic disease affects the nervous system and leads to trouble with muscle coordination.
  • Tumor: A growth on the brain can damage the cerebellum and lead to ataxia.
  • Toxic reaction: Ataxia can be a side effect of alcohol or drug intoxication, heavy metal poisoning or solvent poisoning.
  • Drug side effect: Ataxia can be a possible side effect of certain medications, including some barbiturates and sedatives.
  • Paraneoplastic syndrome: This refers to rare degenerative disorders which occur when the immune system responds in a certain way to cancerous tumors. The ataxia may appear months or years before the cancer is even diagnosed.
  • Viral infections: Certain viral infections, including chickenpox, may cause ataxia, even in the healing stages of the infection. This is a fairly uncommon occurrence and one that usually goes away over time.
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA): This is caused by a temporary reduction in the blood supply to part of the brain. Unlike most cases of ataxia, the loss of coordination associated with TIA is usually temporary.

Prevention

In most cases, especially when genetics or diseases like MS are the cause, ataxia cannot be prevented. However, there are some precautions you can take to help reduce your risk of developing certain types of sporadic ataxia, such as:

  • Protect yourself from head trauma when possible, including wearing a helmet during certain sports and wearing a seatbelt in the car.
  • Check for lead and mercury in your home (especially if you have an older home) as poisoning from either of these elements can lead to ataxia.
  • Get vaccinated against viral illnesses like chickenpox.

Treatment

The treatment for ataxia depends on the cause of the symptom. In many cases, an underlying medical condition, such as MS, is treated to help relieve symptoms. In others, the ataxia goes away on its own over time (as with TIA). In cases where ataxia cannot be easily relieved or is a permanent challenge to the patient the doctor may prescribe one or both of the following treatments to help with ataxia:

  • Adaptive devices: These are often used for patients suffering ataxia due to MS or cerebral palsy. Examples include canes, walkers, communication aids and modified utensils.
  • Therapies: Physical therapy can help with strength and mobility, while speech therapy can help with verbal communication and swallowing. In addition, some patients undergo occupational therapy to help with daily tasks such as eating.

Depending on the cause of the condition, there is not always a cure for ataxia. However, this symptom can often be alleviated with treatment and it can even help diagnose a condition you weren’t aware of having. See your doctor if you start to display any of the coordination problems associated with ataxia.

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