Ataxia means without coordination. People with ataxia lose muscle control in their arms and legs. This may lead to a lack of balance, coordination, and trouble walking. Ataxia may affect the fingers, hands, arms, legs, body, speech, and even eye movements.
While the term ataxia usually describes symptoms, it also describes a group of specific degenerative diseases of the central nervous system called the hereditary and sporadic ataxias:
A defective gene makes abnormal proteins that cause the nerve cell degeneration leading to ataxia. As the disease progresses, muscles become less and less responsive to the commands of the brain. This causes balance and coordination to worsen.
Symptoms and time of onset may vary according to the type of ataxia. Typically, the most common include:
The symptoms of ataxia may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Along with a thorough medical history, family history, and complete neurological and physical exam, these tests may be done:
These tests may also be used to rule out other conditions that can cause ataxia. Certain conditions can cause ataxia to develop suddenly, such as head injury, stroke, brain hemorrhage, infections, exposure to certain drugs, and also if the heart or breathing slow or stop.
Some conditions can cause ataxia to appear gradually, such as hypothyroidism, alcohol abuse, certain vitamin deficiencies, chronic exposure to certain drugs, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders.
There is no cure for the hereditary ataxias. And, there is no medicine to treat the specific symptom of ataxia.
If ataxia is due to a stroke, a low vitamin level, or exposure to a toxic drug or chemical, then treatment is aimed at treating those specific conditions.
The treatment for the lack of coordination or imbalance mostly involves the use of adaptive devices to allow the person to maintain as much independence as possible. These devices may include a cane, crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair. Physical therapy, speech therapy, and medicines to help symptoms, such as tremor, stiffness, depression, spasticity, and sleep disorders may also help.
Research is being done on cerebellar and spinocerebellar degeneration, including work aimed at finding the cause(s) of ataxias and ways to treat, cure, and ultimately prevent them.
Progression of the different types of ataxia may vary with each specific syndrome. In the worst case scenario, the person may have untreatable rigidity, breathing trouble, or choking which can lead to death. Some of the most difficult symptoms require management with continuous positive airway pressure devices (CPAP), tracheostomy, or a feeding tube.
Falling or becoming chair- or bed-bound may lead to other life threatening complications, such as injury, pressure sores, infection, and blood clots. Dementia, behavioral problems, and depression may influence compliance and care. Other complications of ataxia may include:
Many things can be done to improve the quality of life of the person with ataxia.
Symptoms and time of onset may vary according to the type of ataxia. Each person may experience symptoms differently. Contact your provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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