Ataxia is the medical term describing a lack of coordination. It may be caused by damage to a specific part of the brain. A doctor can perform tests or exams and make treatment, therapy, or referral recommendations.
Uncoordinated movement is also known as lack of coordination, coordination impairment, or loss of coordination. The medical term for this problem is ataxia.
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 a tremendous amount of thought or effort. But each movement actually involves a number of muscle groups. They’re largely controlled by the cerebellum, an important structure in the brain.
Ataxia occurs when there’s a disruption in communication between the brain and the rest of the body. This causes jerky and unsteady movements. Ataxia can have a profound effect on a person’s day to day activities.
For some, ataxia may be a slowly developing condition. For others it may occur suddenly and without warning. The most common symptom of ataxia is loss of balance and coordination. If the condition does progress, you may experience difficulty walking and moving your arms and legs. Eventually 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:
- visual difficulties
- problems or changes with speech
- difficulty swallowing
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 for ataxia. They range from chronic conditions to sudden onset. However, most conditions will relate to 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
- multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord
- transient ischemic attack (TIA), a temporary decrease of blood supply to your brain
- genetic ataxias
- cerebral palsy, a group of disorders caused by damage to a child’s brain in early development
- brain tumors
- paraneoplastic syndromes, abnormal immune responses to certain cancerous tumors
- neuropathy, disease or injury to a nerve
- spinal injuries
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 (most common)
- seizure medications
- chemotherapy drugs
- cocaine and heroin
- mercury, lead, and other heavy metals
- toluene and other types of solvents
Sometimes people have a condition known as sporadic ataxia. This causes an ataxia not related to a genetic disorder or a specific known cause.
You should schedule a doctor’s visit right away if you experience any of the following:
- a loss of balance
- trouble swallowing
- lack of coordination for more than a few minutes
- loss of coordination in one or both legs, arms, or hands
- slurred speech
- trouble walking
Seeing the doctor
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and perform a basic physical examination. They’ll perform a detailed neurological exam that includes your muscular and nervous systems. They’ll check your ability to balance, walk, and point with your fingers and toes. Another common test is the Romberg test. It’s used to see if you can balance while closing your eyes and keeping your feet together.
Sometimes the cause of ataxia is clear, such as a brain injury, infection, or toxin. Other times your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms to narrow down the possible cause of your ataxia. These questions often include:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Does anyone in your family have similar symptoms?
- What are you most common symptoms?
- How much do your symptoms impact your life?
- What medications do you take, including vitamins and supplements?
- What substances have you been exposed to?
- Do you use drugs or alcohol?
- Do you have other symptoms, such as visual loss, speech difficulties, or confusion?
Tests to determine the cause of ataxia
Your doctor may order the following 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. If an underlying condition is the cause, your doctor will first treat that. For example, a head trauma may eventually heal and ataxia may subside. But in other cases, such as cerebral palsy, your doctor may not be able to treat ataxia. But there are ways to manage this condition. Some medications may lessen the symptoms associated with ataxia.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend adaptive devices or therapy. Items such as canes, modified utensils, and communications aids may help to improve your quality of life. Therapies designed to help with uncoordinated movement are other options, such as:
Physical therapy: Exercises can help strength your body and increase your mobility.
Occupational therapy: This therapy aims to improve your skills with daily living tasks such as feeding and other fine motor movement.
Speech therapy: This can help with communication as well as swallowing or eating.
Simple changes can also make it easier for a person with ataxia to get around the house. For example:
- keep living areas clean and free of clutter
- provide wide walkways
- install hand rails
- remove rugs and other items that might cause slipping and falling
Researchers at the Albany Medical Center have discovered some treatable forms of ataxia. AVED (Ataxia with Vitamin E Deficiency) is a type of ataxia that improves with Vitamin E supplementation. Gluten ataxia improves with a gluten free diet.
The University of London also reported that vitamin B-3, or nicotinamide, may help people with Friedreich’s ataxia. This treatment may increase frataxin levels, a protein which is low in people with this type of ataxia. But research continues as it’s unknown if this supplementation will 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 to counselor can 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 doctor may have a recommendation for a support group in your area.