Uncoordinated Movement

Written by Krista O'Connell
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Uncoordinated Movement?

Uncoordinated movement is also known as lack of coordination, coordination impairment, and loss of coordination. The medical term for this problem is ataxia.

For most people, body movements are smooth, coordinated, and seamless. Such things as walking, throwing a ball, and picking up a pencil are effortless for most of us. But each movement actually involves a number of muscle groups. They are largely controlled by the cerebellum. This is an important structure in the brain.

When communication between the brain and the rest of the body is disrupted in some way, ataxia may be the result. Movements appear jerky and unsteady. A person with ataxia may also have an unsteady walk or a tendency to stumble while walking. He or she may have problems with everyday tasks that require fine motor skills. These tasks include such seemingly simple things as eating or using a pen to write. Ataxia can have a profound effect on a person’s life.

What Causes Ataxia?

Disease and Injury-Related Causes

Coordinated movements involve the cerebellum, the peripheral nerves of the body, and the spinal cord. Diseases and injuries that damage or destroy any of these structures can lead to ataxia. These include:

  • brain injury
  • head trauma
  • brain infection
  • multiple sclerosis—a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord
  • stroke
  • transient ischemic attack (TIA)—temporary decrease in blood supply to part of your brain
  • congenital cerebellar ataxia—an inherited form of ataxia
  • Friedreich’s ataxia—an inherited disease that affects the muscles and heart
  • Wilson’s disease—a rare inherited disorder in which excess copper in the system damages the liver and nervous system
  • cerebral palsy—a group of disorders caused by damage to a child’s brain in early development
  • brain tumor
  • paraneoplastic syndrome—a rare immune response to a cancerous tumor
  • neuropathy—disease or injury to a nerve
  • spinal injuries
  • chicken pox (uncommon)

Toxins

The toxic effects of some substances can lead to ataxia. These include:

  • alcohol
  • anticholinergics
  • phenytoin
  • carbamazepine
  • phenobarbital
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • sedatives
  • mercury, lead, and other heavy metals
  • toluene and other types of solvents

When to See a Doctor About Ataxia and What to Expect During Your Visit

When to See a Doctor

The following list can help you decide whether you need to see a doctor about your ataxia. It applies to situations in which the ataxia does not have a clear cause. You should schedule a doctor’s visit right away if:

  • you experience loss of balance
  • you are having trouble swallowing
  • your lack of coordination persists for more than a few minutes
  • you lose coordination in one or both legs, arms, and/or hands
  • your speech is slurred
  • you are experiencing trouble with walking

Seeing the Doctor

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and perform a basic physical examination. He or she will also assess the function of your muscular and nervous systems. Balancing, walking, and pointing using the fingers and toes will all likely be assessed. Another commonly used test is the Romberg test. It is very simple. You stand with your feet together then close your eyes and see if you can balance.

Your doctor may also ask the following questions:

  • When did your ataxia begin?
  • Is your ataxia constant, or does it come and go?
  • How severe is your ataxia?
  • What substances have you been exposed to?
  • Do you use drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you have other symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, or confusion?

Tests to Determine the Cause of Ataxia

Your doctor may order the following tests:

  • blood test
  • urine test
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • spinal tap
  • genetic testing

Living With Ataxia

There is no cure for ataxia itself. However, treating the underlying cause may relieve the symptoms in some cases. In other cases, your doctor may recommend adaptive devices or therapy.

Adaptive Devices

If ataxia is caused by a chronic disorder such as cerebral palsy, your doctor may not be able to treat it. The following adaptive devices might make life easier:

  • canes or walkers for walking
  • modified utensils for eating
  • communication aids for speaking

Environmental Changes

Simple changes can make it easier for a person with ataxia to get around the house. For example:

  • avoid clutter
  • provide wide walkways
  • remove throw rugs and other items that might cause slipping and falling

Therapy

Therapies that might help include:

  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • speech therapy
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