Acute Cerebellar Ataxia: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis
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Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

What Is Acute Cerebellar Ataxia?

Acute cerebellar ataxia (ACA), also known as cerebellitis, is a disorder that occurs when the cerebellum becomes inflamed or damaged. The cerebellum is the area of the brain responsible for controlling gait and muscle coordination. People with ACA often have a loss of coordination and may have difficulty performing daily tasks. The condition most commonly affects children, particularly those between ages 2 and 7.

What Causes Acute Cerebellar Ataxia?

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Viruses and other diseases that affect the nervous system can injure the cerebellum. These include chickenpox, and infections caused by the Epstein-Barr and Coxsackie viruses. ACA can take weeks to appear following a viral infection.

Other causes of ACA include:

  • bleeding in the cerebellum
  • exposure to mercury, lead, and other toxins
  • bacterial infections, such as Lyme disease
  • head trauma

ACA can develop in anyone, but it typically affects children under age 8.

Symptoms of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

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The symptoms of ACA include:

  • impaired coordination in the torso or arms and legs
  • frequent stumbling
  • an unsteady gait
  • uncontrolled or repetitive eye movements
  • trouble eating and performing other fine motor tasks
  • slurred speech
  • vocal changes
  • headaches
  • behavioral or personality changes
  • dizziness

These symptoms are also associated with several other conditions that affect the nervous system. It’s important to see your doctor so they can make a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosing Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

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Your doctor will run several tests to determine whether you have ACA and to find the underlying cause of the disorder. These tests can include a routine physical exam and various neurological assessments. Your doctor may also test your:

  • hearing
  • memory
  • balance
  • vision
  • concentration
  • reflexes
  • coordination

If you weren’t infected with a virus recently, your doctor will also look for signs of other conditions and disorders that commonly lead to ACA.

There are a number of tests your doctor can use to evaluate your symptoms, including:

  • A nerve conduction study determines whether your nerves are working correctly.
  • Electromyography (EMG) records and evaluates the electrical activity in your muscles.
  • A spinal tap allows your doctor to examine your cerebrospinal fluid. This is the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain.
  • complete blood count (CBC) determines whether there are any decreases or increases in your number of blood cells. This can help your doctor assess your overall health.
  • Your doctor may also look for brain damage using a CT or MRI scan. These imaging tests provide detailed pictures of your brain, allowing your doctor to get a closer look and evaluate any damage in the brain more easily.
  • Other tests your doctor might perform include a urinalysis and an ultrasound.

Treating Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

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Treatment for ACA isn’t always necessary. When a virus causes ACA, a full recovery is usually expected without treatment. Viral ACA generally goes away in a few months without treatment.

However, treatment is usually required if a virus is not the cause of your ACA. The specific treatment will vary depending on the cause.

  • You may need surgery if your condition is the result of bleeding in the cerebellum.
  • You may need antibiotics if you have an infection.
  • Blood thinners can help if a stroke caused your ACA.
  • There are also medications you can take that directly treat inflammation of the cerebellum.

If you have ACA, you might need help with daily tasks. Special eating utensils and adaptive devices such as canes and speaking aids can help. Physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy may also help improve your symptoms. Some people also find that making certain lifestyle changes, such as changing their diet and taking nutritional supplements, can further relieve the symptoms.

Complications of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

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The symptoms of ACA might become permanent when the disorder is caused by a stroke, an infection, or bleeding into the cerebellum. If you have ACA, you’re also at a higher risk for developing anxiety and depression, especially if they you need help with daily tasks or you’re unable to get around on your own. Joining a support group or meeting with a counselor can help you cope with your symptoms and any challenges you’re facing.

Preventing Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

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It’s difficult to prevent ACA, but you can reduce your children’s risk of getting it. Make sure they get vaccinated against the viruses that can lead to ACA, such as chickenpox.

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