Ataxia is the term that’s used to refer to issues with muscle coordination or control. People with ataxia often have trouble with things like movement, balance, and speech.
There are several different types of ataxia, and each type has a different cause.
Read on to learn more about the different types of ataxia, the causes, common symptoms, and possible treatment options.
Ataxia describes an impairment of muscle control or coordination.
This can affect different types of movements including, but not limited to:
Damage to — or degeneration of — the nerve cells in or around the cerebellum can result in ataxia. Genes you inherit from your parents may also cause ataxia.
Ataxia can affect people of any age. It’s often progressive, meaning that symptoms worsen over time. The rate of progression can vary by individual as well as by type of ataxia.
Ataxia is rare. It’s estimated that only about 150,000 people in the United States have it.
Ataxia can be:
Below, we’ll explore each type of ataxia in more detail and what causes it.
Inherited ataxias develop due to mutations in specific genes that you inherit from your parents. These mutations can lead to damage or degeneration of nerve tissue, which leads to symptoms of ataxia.
Inherited ataxia is typically passed down in two different ways:
- Dominant. Only one copy of the mutated gene is required to have the condition. This gene can be inherited from either parent.
- Recessive. Two copies of the mutated gene (one from each parent) are required to have the condition.
Some examples of dominant inherited ataxias are:
- Spinocerebellar ataxia. There are dozens of different types spinocerebellar ataxia. Each type is classified by the specific area of the gene that’s mutated. Symptoms and the age at which the symptoms develop can vary by type of ataxia.
- Episodic ataxia. This type of ataxia isn’t progressive and instead occurs in episodes. There are seven different types of episodic ataxia. The symptoms and length of the ataxia episodes can vary by type.
Recessive inherited ataxias can include:
- Friedreich’s ataxia. Also known as spinocerebellar degeneration, Friedreich’s ataxia is the
most commoninherited ataxia. In addition to difficulties with movement and speech, muscle weakening can also occur. This type of ataxia can also affect the heart.
- Ataxia telangiectasia. People with ataxia telangiectasia often have dilated blood vessels in their eyes and face. In addition to the typical symptoms of ataxia, individuals with this ataxia are more prone to infections and cancers.
Acquired ataxia occurs due to nerve damage from external factors, such as an injury, as opposed to inherited genes.
Some examples of things that can lead to acquired ataxia include:
- injury to the head
- tumors affecting the brain and surrounding area
- infections, such as meningitis, HIV, and chickenpox
- cerebral palsy
- autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and paraneoplastic syndromes
- an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin B-12, vitamin E, or thiamine
- reactions to certain medications, such as barbiturates, sedatives, and chemotherapy drugs
- poisoning from heavy metals, such as lead or mercury, or solvents, such as paint thinner
- long-term misuse of alcohol
Sometimes no specific cause of ataxia can be found. In these individuals, the ataxia is referred to as idiopathic.
Some of the most common symptoms of ataxia can include:
- problems with coordination and balance, which can include clumsiness, an unsteady gait, and frequent falling
- trouble with fine motor tasks, such as writing, picking up small objects, or buttoning up clothes
- slurred or unclear speech
- tremors or muscle spasms
- difficulties with eating or swallowing
- abnormal eye movements, such as slower-than-normal eye movement or nystagmus, a type of involuntary eye movement
It’s important to remember that ataxia symptoms can vary by the type of ataxia as well as its severity.
In order to make a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will first request your medical history. They’ll ask if you have a family history of inherited ataxia.
They may also ask about the medications you take and your level of alcohol consumption. They’ll then perform physical and neurological evaluations.
These tests can help your healthcare provider assess things like your:
- muscle strength
- memory and concentration
Your healthcare provider may also request additional tests, including:
- Imaging tests. A CT or MRI scan can create detailed images of your brain. This can help your doctor to see any abnormalities or tumors.
- Blood tests. Blood tests can be used to help determine the cause of your ataxia, particularly if it’s due to an infection, vitamin deficiency, or hypothyroidism.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). With a lumbar puncture, a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected from between two vertebrae in the lower back. The sample is then sent to a lab for testing.
- Genetic testing. Genetic testing is available for many types of inherited ataxias. This type of testing uses a blood sample to see if you have genetic mutations associated with an inherited ataxia.
The specific treatment will depend on the type of ataxia and how severe it is. In some cases of acquired ataxia, treating the underlying cause, such as an infection or a vitamin deficiency, can ease symptoms.
There’s no cure for many kinds of ataxia. However, there are several interventions that may help to ease or manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
- Medications. Some medications can help treat the symptoms that occur with ataxia. Examples include:
- Assistive devices. Assistive devices can include things like wheelchairs and walkers to help with mobility. Communication aids can help with speaking.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help you with mobility and balance. It can also help you maintain muscle strength and flexibility.
- Speech therapy. With this type of therapy, a speech therapist will teach you techniques to help make your speech clearer.
- Occupational therapy. Occupational therapy teaches you various strategies that you can use to make it easier to do your day-to-day activities.
Ataxia is a lack of muscle coordination and control. People with ataxia have trouble with things like movement, fine motor tasks, and maintaining balance.
Ataxia can be inherited or acquired, or it can have no identifiable cause. Symptoms, progression, and age of onset can vary depending on the type of ataxia.
Sometimes treating the underlying cause can relieve ataxia symptoms. Medications, assistive devices, and physical therapy are other options that may help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
See your healthcare provider if you have symptoms like loss of coordination, slurred speech, or trouble swallowing that can’t be explained by another condition.
Your healthcare provider will work with you to diagnose your condition and develop a treatment plan.