Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

Written by Amanda Delgado and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Acute Cerebellar Ataxia?

The cerebellum is the area of the brain responsible for controlling muscle coordination. If it becomes inflamed or damaged, you may suddenly lose coordination. This is called acute cerebellar ataxia (ACA), or cerebellitis.

What Causes Acute Cerebellar Ataxia?

Viruses and other diseases that affect the nervous system can damage the cerebellum. Some viruses that can cause ACA include chickenpox, Epstein-Barr virus, and coxsackie disease. Ataxia can take weeks to appear following a viral infection in children.

Other causes of ACA include:

  • bleeding in the cerebellum
  • exposure to mercury, lead, and certain other toxins
  • degenerative disorders
  • head trauma

Children younger than 3 years old have the highest risk of ataxia. However, older children and adults can also develop ACA.

Symptoms of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

Symptoms of ACA include:

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

These symptoms are also associated with several other conditions that affect the nervous system. It is important to visit your doctor if you experience any of them.

Diagnosis of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

Your doctor will administer several tests to determine whether you have ataxia and what is causing it. These tests can include a complete physical exam and various neurological exams. Your hearing, memory, balance, vision, concentration, reflexes, and coordination may all be evaluated. If you did not have a recent virus, a doctor will also look closely for underlying disorders and conditions that commonly lead to ACA.

There are a number of tests your doctor can use to evaluate your symptoms.

  • A nerve conduction study can determine if your nerves are working as they should.
  • Electromyography lets your doctor test the electrical activity in your muscles.
  • A spinal tap, which involves having a needle placed in your lower back, allows your doctor to examine your cerebrospinal fluid.
  • A complete blood count helps your doctor assess your overall health.

Your doctor might also look for damage in your brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT). Other tests your doctor might perform include a urinalysis and an ultrasound.

Treatment of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

Treatment is not always necessary. When ACA is caused by a virus, a full recovery is usually expected without treatment. Viral ataxia generally clears on its own within a few months.

If your ataxia is not caused by a virus, it may require treatment. However, specific treatment will depend on the cause. Surgery may be recommended if your ataxia is due to bleeding. Antibiotics might be necessary if you have an infection. Blood-thinners can help if your ataxia was caused by a stroke. There is also medication available that can treat inflammation of the cerebellum directly.

If you have ataxia, you may also need assistance dealing with your symptoms. Adaptive devices such as canes, special eating utensils, and speaking aids can all help with walking or performing daily tasks. So can physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Some people also find that lifestyle changes, such as altering their diet and taking nutritional supplements, can help their condition improve.

Complications of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

ACA that occurs due to a stroke, infection, or bleeding may cause chronic symptoms. Having ataxia can also put you at higher risk for anxiety and depression, especially if you need help with daily tasks or are unable to get around on your own.

Prevention of Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

You can’t prevent acute cerebellar ataxia, but you can reduce your children’s risk of getting it. Make sure your child gets vaccinated against viruses, such as chickenpox, that can put them at risk

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