Ataxia is a medical term describing a lack of coordination. Uncoordinated movement is also known as coordination impairment or loss of coordination.

For most people, body movements are smooth, coordinated, and seamless. Motions such as walking, throwing a ball, and picking up a pencil don’t require much thought or effort.

But each movement actually involves a number of muscle groups. The cerebellum, an important structure in the brain, is involved in controlling the balance and coordination of movements.

Ataxia occurs when there’s a disruption in communication between the areas of the brain that control balance and coordination and the areas of the brain that control movement.

This can cause jerky and unsteady movements. Ataxia can have a profound effect on a person’s day-to-day activities.

Some conditions cause gradual or progressive ataxia, and some conditions cause sudden symptoms of ataxia. The symptoms can affect different movements and may range from mild to severe.

The most common symptom of ataxia is loss of balance and coordination. If the condition does progress, you may experience increased difficulty walking and moving your arms and legs.

There can be a loss of fine motor skills, affecting activities such as writing or buttoning up your shirt.

Other common symptoms of ataxia can include:

  • dizziness
  • visual difficulties
  • problems or changes with speech
  • difficulty swallowing
  • tremors

These symptoms can be very concerning because they are often similar to a stroke. Seek emergency medical attention if these symptoms suddenly appear.

There are a number of known causes of ataxia. They range from chronic conditions to sudden onset. However, most causes stem from damage or degeneration of the cerebellum.

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:

  • head trauma
  • alcohol use disorder
  • infection
  • multiple sclerosis
  • stroke
  • cerebral palsy
  • brain tumors
  • paraneoplastic syndromes
  • nerve disease or injury (neuropathy)
  • spinal injuries
  • Huntington’s disease
  • multisystem atrophy

Examples of some inherited conditions related to ataxia are Friedreich’s ataxia and Wilson’s disease.

Friedreich’s ataxia is a genetic disease that causes problems with energy production in the nervous system and the heart. Wilson’s disease is a rare inherited disorder in which excess copper damages the liver and nervous system.


Some substances have toxic effects that can lead to ataxia. These include:

  • alcohol
  • anti-seizure medications
  • chemotherapy drugs
  • lithium
  • cocaine and heroin
  • sedatives
  • mercury, lead, and other heavy metals
  • toluene and other types of solvents

Uncoordinated movement unrelated to a genetic disorder or a specific known cause is known as idiopathic ataxia.

It’s important to consult with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you develop unusual symptoms, such as an unexpected lack of coordination or a loss of coordination in one or more limbs.

During your appointment, your healthcare professional will likely start by asking about your symptoms and overall medical history. For example:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Does anyone in your family have similar symptoms?
  • What are your most common symptoms?
  • How much do your symptoms impact your life?
  • What medications do you take, including vitamins and supplements?
  • Do you drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use other substances?
  • Do you have other symptoms like visual loss, speech difficulties, or confusion?
  • Are there any triggers or factors that improve your symptoms?

They’ll perform a physical examination and check your ability to balance, walk, and point with your fingers and toes.

Your clinician might also ask you to perform the Romberg test. It’s used to see if you can balance while closing your eyes and keeping your feet together.

They may order the following lab tests:

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

Your doctor will consider the overall picture of your symptoms and test results in making a diagnosis. They may also refer you to a neurologist, a specialist in the nervous system.

There’s no cure for ataxia itself. Ataxia caused by an injury or acute condition may resolve after treating the root cause. For example, head trauma may eventually heal, and ataxia may subside.

Ataxia stemming from a chronic condition may also lessen with medication or other options for long-term management.

Your doctor might also recommend adaptive devices, including mobility and communication aids, to help improve your quality of life.

Implementing certain changes to your living space can also make it easier to get around with injury. For example:

  • removing rugs and other items that might cause slipping and falling
  • keeping countertops tidy and walkways free of clutter
  • using a chair or stool in the shower
  • installing handrails or other supports

Other therapies designed to help with uncoordinated movement include:

  • Physical therapy: Exercises can help strengthen your body and increase your mobility.
  • Occupational therapy: This therapy aims to improve your skills with daily living tasks such as eating and other fine motor movement.
  • Speech therapy: This can help with communication, swallowing, and eating.

Some forms of ataxia may benefit from certain supplements or dietary changes:

  • Ataxia with vitamin E deficiency (AVED) may improve with vitamin E supplementation
  • Gluten ataxia may improve with a gluten-free diet
  • Friedreich’s ataxia may improve with vitamin B3 or nicotinamide supplementation

More research is needed to determine whether dietary therapies work long-term to slow or stop the disease.

Symptoms of ataxia can affect a person’s independence. This can result in feelings of anxiety and depression. Talking with a mental health professional may help.

If one-on-one counseling doesn’t sound appealing, consider a support group for people with ataxia or other chronic neurological conditions. Support groups are often available online or in person.

Your clinician might be able to refer you to a support group or other resources in your area.