If you have impaired muscle coordination or control, you might have a type of ataxia. This condition is rare, but it can make it difficult to maintain balance, speak, or move.

“Ataxia” is the medical 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 types of ataxia, and each type has a different cause.

Read on to learn more about the 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:

  • walking
  • eating
  • talking
  • writing

The area of your brain that coordinates movement is called the cerebellum. It’s located at the base of your brain just above the brain stem.

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 person as well as by type of ataxia.

Sometimes the term “ataxia” is used to describe movement symptoms in people with other conditions. But ataxia as a condition in itself is rare. Friedreich’s ataxia, the most common type, affects about 1 in 50,000 people in the United States.

Ataxia can be:

  • inherited
  • acquired
  • idiopathic

Below, we’ll look at each type of ataxia in more detail and what causes it.

Inherited ataxia

Inherited ataxias develop from 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:

  1. Dominant. Only one copy of the mutated gene is required to have the condition. This gene can be inherited from either parent.
  2. 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 types of 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 eight 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 common inherited 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, people with this ataxia are more prone to infections and cancers.

Acquired ataxia

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:

Idiopathic ataxia

Sometimes no specific cause of ataxia can be found. In these cases, the ataxia is referred to as idiopathic.

Affected regions

Ataxia can also be grouped according to which part of the nervous system is affected. The location of nerve damage tends to be associated with particular symptoms of ataxia.

Cerebellar ataxia

The cerebellum is a region of the brain. Most ataxias are categorized as “cerebellar,” meaning they are related to the cerebellum. There are two subtypes of cerebellar ataxia:

  • Midline cerebellum. The midline refers to the middle part of the cerebellum. Damage to the midline cerebellum can cause problems such as vision changes, uncoordinated walking, and tremors during movement.
  • Lateral cerebellum. “Lateral” refers to the outer edges of the cerebellum. Nerve damage to an outer area of the cerebellum usually results in ataxia symptoms on the same side of the body. So, if the left lateral cerebellum is damaged, symptoms are likely to be on your left side. Possible symptoms include speech problems, difficulty measuring distance when reaching or stepping, or difficulty making quick rhythmic movements.

Sensory ataxia

Sensory ataxia can be related to nerve problems in the spinal cord, vision system, or peripheral nerves. These parts of your nervous system help your body sense its own location and movements — also known as proprioception. Issues with these nerves are usually associated with problems with walking.

People with sensory ataxia also tend to have trouble standing with their feet together and eyes closed. This is known as a Romberg test.

Vestibular ataxia

Vestibular ataxia is related to the vestibular system. The vestibular system includes nerves that connect from the inner ear to the cerebellum (brain). Damage to this area can cause problems with vertigo, balance, and hearing.

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 clothes
  • slurred or unclear speech
  • tremors or muscle spasms
  • difficulties with eating or swallowing
  • unusual 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.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will first request your medical history. They’ll ask whether you have a family history of inherited ataxia.

They may also ask about the medications you take and your alcohol consumption. They’ll then perform physical and neurological evaluations.

These tests can help your doctor assess things like your:

  • coordination
  • balance
  • movement
  • reflexes
  • muscle strength
  • memory and concentration
  • vision
  • hearing

Your doctor may also request additional tests, or refer you to a neurologist for further care. Additional tests that can be ordered by a doctor or neurologist include:

  • Imaging tests. A CT or MRI scan can create detailed images of your brain. This can help your doctor 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 ease or manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

These include:

  • 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.

If you have symptoms of ataxia with no known cause, it’s important to talk with a doctor. They can help diagnose what’s happening and initiate any follow-up care that may be needed.

It’s best not to ignore symptoms like difficulty with:

  • coordination or balance
  • walking
  • talking or swallowing

Sudden changes in these functions can potentially indicate a medical emergency, such as stroke. If you suspect someone is having a stroke or other medical emergency, contact your local emergency services right away.

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 doctor if you have symptoms like loss of coordination, slurred speech, or trouble swallowing that can’t be explained by another condition.

Your doctor will work with you to diagnose your condition and develop a treatment plan.