Ataxia: Causes and Treatment
Difficulty controlling your muscle movements is called ataxia. Ataxia is not a diagnosis. This lack of organized activity is a condition that has multiple causes. It is usually due to injury to the neurons in the cerebellum which lies underneath the cerebrum at the base of the brain and is responsible for coordination of movement. Ataxia often affects walking and hand movements. Other muscular systems can also be also be affected, especially the muscles involved in eye movements, swallowing and speech.
Physical manifestations of ataxia
- A wide, staggering gait, similar to that seen in an intoxicated person.
- Difficulty with writing or eating.
- Abnormal, back and forth eye movements, called nystagmus.
- Difficulty swallowing, feeling that something’s caught in your throat.
- Slurred speech because of the inability to coordinate tongue and lips.
There are a wide variety of causes. Alcohol is the commonest but viral illnesses like chicken pox can cause a temporary ataxia.
Causes of ataxia
- Stroke affecting the cerebellum.
- Toxins, most commonly alcohol, but lead, mercury and solvent poisoning and medications such as barbiturates and chemotherapeutic agents.
- Head trauma.
- Tumors of the cerebellum.
- Autoimmune diseases, especially multiple sclerosis.
- Vitamin E and B-12 deficiencies.
- Cerebral palsy.
- Hereditary conditions, such as spinocerebellar ataxias, Freidreich’s Ataxia, ataxia telangiectasia and Wilson’s disease.
If you have any of the symptoms of ataxia, you need to see your doctor to determine the underlying cause. You will be given a complete physical examination, including a neurological exam. You may need to see a specialist and will probably need to have special imaging studies done, such as an MRI or CT scan. Blood tests and urinalysis are usually done as well.
If the cause is treatable, such as a vitamin deficiency, your doctor will determine a treatment plan. If the damage to the cerebellum is not too serious, the ataxia may resolve.
Most causes, however, are not curable. That doesn’t mean that your ataxia cannot be treated. Treatment for ataxia is designed to improve your mobility, to strengthen you and prevent falls, to improve your life.
Treatments for ataxia
- Devices that will help you function better: walkers, special eating utensils, communication devices.
- Physical therapy to improve your balance and mobility.
- Speech therapy to help overcome the slurring.
- Occupational therapy to improve your capability to handle your daily activities.
- Medications for problems such as depression, spasticity, dizziness, muscle cramps and tremors.
Ataxia can be hard to live with but your doctor can help you cope. If you have the symptoms of ataxia and are not under a doctor’s care, set up an appointment today. Help is available at the Balance & Dizziness Center to make life better.