Ataxia | Neurology & Neurosurgery | Loyola Medicine


Overview and Facts about Ataxia

Ataxia is a movement disorder that causes poor balance or coordination. People with ataxia may have trouble walking or performing everyday tasks. Some may also have difficulty swallowing, talking or speaking.

Ataxia isn’t a neurological condition in itself. Instead, it’s a symptom of an underlying medical problem. It often results from damage to the brain, nerves or muscles. Common causes of ataxia include stroke, cerebral palsy, alcohol abuse or brain tumors.

Signs and Symptoms of Ataxia

Ataxia typically develops gradually over time, but some people develop ataxia very suddenly. The progression of your symptoms can depend on your medical history.

Symptoms of ataxia can include:

  • Frequent stumbling or tripping
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor fine motor contron
  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Unsteady walking

Symptoms of ataxia can be a sign of a serious medical problem. Ataxia should always be taken seriously, especially if symptoms develop without warning. It’s also important to seek medical help right away if your symptoms suddenly become much worse.

Causes and Risk Factors of Ataxia

Ataxia is generally caused by damage to the nerve cells inside your brain. These cells control muscle movement and coordination. In some cases, damage to the spinal column or nerve cells outside of the brain can also cause ataxia.

Any disease that affects the brain or spinal column can potentially cause ataxia. But the most common causes of ataxia include:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Head injury
  • Infections
  • Stroke
  • Tumors
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Some people may develop ataxia after taking certain medications. Exposure to toxic chemicals or poisons can also cause this condition.

Certain types of ataxia may be caused by hereditary conditions or gene mutations; these cases often run in families. However, ataxia can sometimes develop even when there are no known causes or risk factors.

Tests and Diagnosis of Ataxia

If you have ataxia, your doctor may order a variety of tests to discover what's causing your symptoms. Imaging tests like MRIs or CT scans can reveal tumors or other abnormalities in your brain. Blood tests allow your doctor to check for nutritional deficiencies, exposure to toxic substances, or autoimmune conditions.

Your doctor may also recommend a lumbar puncture. This procedure involves a needle being inserted into your spinal column to extract a small amount of spinal fluid to be tested for infections.

In some cases, your doctor may suggest genetic testing, which can check for gene mutations or hereditary conditions that may cause ataxia.

Treatment and Care for Ataxia

Treatment may depend on which condition is causing your ataxia. Some types of ataxia can be cured. If your ataxia is a side effect of prescription medication, stopping this medication may resolve your symptoms. If your symptoms are caused by a progressive illness, a cure may not be available.

Regardless of the reason for ataxia, treatment can help you manage your symptoms. Adaptive devices like a walker or special eating utensils can make you safer and more comfortable. You may also benefit from physical or occupational therapy. These treatments should help you improve your coordination and mobility.