Ataxia is a lack of motor (muscle coordination). Ataxia is usually caused by damage to the cerebellum.

image of the cerebellum

The cerebellum is located in the back of the brain and is responsible for:

  • Coordinating voluntary movement of the arms and legs
  • Controlling postural muscles
  • Fine motor
  • Eye movement
  • Coordinating the muscles used for speaking

What are the types of Ataxia?

Acquired Ataxia

Damage to the brain or spinal cord can cause ataxia. This is called acquired ataxia

Hereditary Ataxia

Ataxia can also be the result of a faulty gene that causes degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. This is referred to as hereditary ataxia.

Idiopathic or Cerebellar Ataxia

Sometimes there is no known cause for ataxia. This type of ataxia is referred to as idiopathic ataxia or cerebellar ataxia

Acquired Ataxia

Acquired ataxia can have a wide range of potential causes including:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Bacterial brain infection (meningitis and/or encephalitis)
  • Disruption in blood flow to the brain: stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Cerebral palsy – brain damage that occurs before, during, or shortly after birth.
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Sustained long term alcohol misuse
  • Underactive thyroid gland
  • B12 deficiency
  • Brain tumors
  • Medications such as benzodiazepines

Symptoms

  • Problems with coordination
  • Balance problems
  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty writing and/or picking up small objects
  • Slurred speech
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Abnormal eye movement (nystagmus)

How is Ataxia Treated?

The treatment for ataxia will depend largely on the underlying cause. There are some medications that might help to lessen the severity of the symptoms. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy can significantly help to improve movement quality and reduce the impact that the movement problems may have on your life.

Occupational Therapy (OT) – An OT will help you to improve your fine motor skills including writing, buttoning, and picking up small objects (fine motor).

Speech Therapy (ST) – A speech therapist will work on improving coordination in the “speaking muscles”, and swallowing muscles.

Physical Therapy (PT) – PT will focus on retraining the entire balance system (the cerebellum plays a MAJOR role in the balance system). A physical therapist is also skilled in retraining the “quality” of arm and leg movement. This will involved working on the “smoothness” and accuracy of the movement. For example when reaching for an object with the arm or stepping the foot forward with walking. Additionally, PT will also provide exercises to strengthen the muscle that keep the trunk steady. This is critical in providing a stable base and will assist with the quality of arm and leg movement.

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