Olivopontocerebellar atrophy (OPA) is an uncommon but serious neurological disorder. It causes nerve tissue degeneration and atrophy in the brain. Doctors believe that OPA is similar to a multiple system atrophy (MSA) disorder. Different MSA disorders occur in different sites within the brain.

OPA shares many symptoms with MSA disorders. One common symptom is ataxia. Ataxia is a difficulty in controlling your muscle movements for gait. Diagnosing OPA can be challenging because so many of the symptoms mirror those of MSA disorders.

Neurological disorders also share symptoms with OPA. For example, Parkinson’s disease can look similar to OPA. Some of the shared symptoms include tremors and balance problems. Diagnostic imaging tests help neurologists look for areas of damage and diagnose disorders.

There’s no cure for OPA. Doctors are able to offer treatment that helps patients live as long as possible. The life expectancy for people with OPA differs because brains degenerate at different rates.

Risk factors depend upon the type of OPA. People with a family history of OPA are at risk for inheriting the condition. On the other hand, people with no family history of OPA may also acquire the disease due to occupational and environmental factors. One risk factor is close contact with certain chemicals.

There’s no known cause for OPA. However, OPA does seem to pass through families. The disease can also appear suddenly where there’s no family history of the disease.

Some doctors believe that environmental contact with certain materials or chemicals can lead to OPA. For example, someone with no family history of OPA can acquire it late in life because of what they’ve come into contact with. Chemicals such as carbon disulfide and carbon dioxide have been shown to contribute to the development of OPA.

OPA is known to affect people for the first time when they are in their 50s. The fact that the disease attacks older people supports the environmental contact theory. By the time people reach their 50s, they have come into contact with many chemicals found in food, plastic, and makeup.

OPA causes symptoms common to many neurological disorders. The most well-known symptom is ataxia. Ataxia appears as difficulties in controlling deliberate muscle movement. People who have ataxia may believe they are simply being clumsy. However, their clumsiness is actually a warning sign of their OPA.

Some of the more common symptoms of OPA may also include:

  • tremor (shaking in the hands)
  • bradykinesia (a slowness in the start of motion)
  • slurred speech
  • balance problems (such as weaving side to side when you walk)
  • muscle spasms
  • muscle stiffness and rigidity
  • nerve damage (neuropathy)
  • abnormal, involuntary eye movements
  • bowel or bladder problems
  • difficulty swallowing

People with the inherited form of OPA tend to see symptoms earlier than those with the acquired form.

Doctors use diagnostic tests and review your symptoms to diagnose OPA. Doctors will often consult with neurologists when they see signs of a neurological disorder.

Neurologists look at neurological signals and make a decision about the cause. Symptoms aren’t always enough, so they may order images of the brain.

Neurological disorders that occur with OPA include Parkinson’s disease. This disease is a nerve disorder that causes shaking of the hands.

Imaging tests used for OPA include:

  • CT scans: cross-sectional, detailed X-rays that show brain damage
  • MRI: imaging technique that uses radio waves to show detailed images of the structure of organs

Because there’s no cure for OPA, doctors focus treatments on lessening symptoms and helping you remain self-sufficient for as long as possible.

Treatments for OPA include:

  • anti-tremor medications, such as Levadopa
  • walking aids, such as canes or walkers
  • mechanical wheelchairs
  • occupational therapy

Occupational and physical therapists can create exercise and stretching routines that will help you keep your balance and strength for as long as possible.

You should also learn techniques to help you swallow your food so that your nutrition doesn’t suffer. Loss of ability to swallow food can also lead to choking.

People with OPA will lose more of their bodily skills as the disease progresses. Doctors can help reduce symptoms. Physical and occupational therapists help you live without assistance from a caretaker.

Reduced mobility and loss of individual control can be difficult to deal with. Support from friends and family is crucial to the emotional wellbeing of someone with OPA. You may also benefit from joining a support group if you or a loved one has OPA. Speak with your doctor about the availability of a support group in your area.