What is Ataxia?

From a Greek word meaning “without coordination,” ataxia is a nervous system condition effecting movement of legs, arms, hands, or eyes. It may also affect overall balance.

The term “ataxia” is sometimes used in reference to progressive degeneration within the central nervous system. It’s also a term used to refer to specific genetic or sporadic forms of the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Ataxia?

When ataxia is hereditary, symptoms may start during childhood (symptoms vary). Some variations of ataxia, such as Friedreich’s ataxia, don’t present symptoms until later in life. Symptoms may also appear suddenly as a result of another condition or injury or later in life.

Symptoms include:

  • Visible lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty walking
  • Abnormal gait to compensate for balance issues
  • Slow eye movements
  • Difficulty performing fine motor tasks, such as writing
  • Trouble swallowing (often associated with advanced stages of ataxia)

Ataxia Causes

Ataxia, the loss of coordination of voluntary movement, is caused by many things. It can be the result of genetics, of brain damage, or of drug use. Oftentimes, the most common reason for ataxia is ingestion of depressants of the central nervous system. The central nervous system plays a key role in the coordination of bodily movement and therefore drugs, especially recreational drugs, have a tendency to cause ataxia.

Additionally, ataxia is associated with the brain damage commonly observed in patients with hypothyroidism. The thyroid plays an essential role in the production of many hormones and without those hormones, the body is not able to coordinate movements. Beyond these causes, there are also nutritional causes of ataxia. Vitamin B12 deficiency is strongly associated with ataxia because acetylcholine, the technical name for vitamin B12, is important in the regulation of voluntary processes as well.

How is Ataxia Treated?

Diagnosing Ataxia

Since a lack of coordination with movements can indicate many different neurological conditions, diagnosis typically involves a thorough exam and image scans. Family and medical histories are also taken into consideration. In addition to an MRI scan of the brain, a blood test is often ordered to rule out other conditions. If hereditary ataxia is suspected, a genetic blood test may be performed.

Treatments include:

Treatment for ataxia is based on the cause. If an infection is the root cause, for instance, antibiotics will likely be recommended. If ataxia is related to another condition, treatment would address the contributing condition.

Hereditary ataxia is often progressive, with symptoms slowly becoming more pronounced over time. Sporadic ataxia is more difficult to diagnose. Ataxia can sometimes be accompanied by other conditions such as dementia and disorders affecting peripheral nerves. Ataxia symptoms can also appear as a result of a traumatic injury or following a stroke.

Ataxia Prevention

Preventing ataxia in nonhereditary cases is quite simple. Avoiding recreational drugs can do wonders to prevent ataxia by protecting the central nervous system. This means one should not only avoid illegal recreational drugs but legal drugs as well such as alcohol and caffeine. These drugs can be just as damaging as anything you would find sold in the streets.

Another important preventive step is to prevent damage to the cerebellum. The most devastating thing that can happen to the cerebellum is a lack of vitamin B12. Without it, the cerebellum will decrease in size massively leaving important functions such as coordination disrupted. Sometimes, the causes of ataxia are difficult for an individual to detect. This is why people who are concerned they have ataxia must visit a doctor on a regular basis. A doctor can easily see the symptoms of ataxia and step in to take preventive steps such as medication or surgery if needed.

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