Ataxia is a group of neurological conditions causing degrees of disability and problems with physical co-ordination, such as walking, balance, speech, sight and swallowing. Tasks such as writing with a pen or eating with cutlery can be affected.
Ataxia is often caused by damage to the part of the brain called the cerebellum or damage elsewhere to the body's nervous system.
There is no cure yet for ataxia, but treatment and therapy may help relieve some symptoms.
The charity Ataxia UK says the condition affects more than 10,000 people in the UK.
Different types of ataxia can affect adults and children of any age.
Types of ataxia
There are more than 50 types of ataxia documented but it is possible more variants will be found in the future.
The main types of ataxia are:
Acquired ataxia: Symptoms begin suddenly after injury, trauma or other condition affecting the cerebellum or nervous system, such as having a stroke.
Hereditary ataxia: This form of ataxia is inherited and the problems with genes cause symptoms to develop over many years.
Idiopathic late onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOA): Progressive damage to the cerebellum over time causes ataxia, although the reasons are not fully understood.
Symptoms of ataxia are usually first seen in problems with balance and co-ordination in the limbs. People with ataxia may compensate for the condition and lack of balance by walking with their feet further apart.
Later symptoms may include slurred speech (dysarthria) and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).
The eyes of a person with ataxia may move erratically from side to side or up and down (oscillopsia).
Other symptoms include:
- Hands shaking
- Loss of feeling and strength in the limbs
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Loss of memory
- Anxiety and depression
Children and teenagers with inherited Friedreich’s ataxia may also have:
- Foot deformity, high arches, hammer toes
- Scoliosis (curvature of the spine)
- Vision loss through optical nerve damage
- Hearing loss
- Heart problems
Causes of ataxia
As well as inherited genetic problems or injury, other causes of ataxia include:
- Bacterial infection including meningitis or encephalitis
- Viral infection such as chickenpox or measles that spreads to the brain
- Stroke, bleeding in the brain, transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
- Cerebral palsy
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Alcohol abuse
- Underactive thyroid
- Exposure to toxins or pesticides
- Some medications, including benzodiazepines for anxiety or sleep disorders
- Autoimmune conditions, including lupus
Ataxia diagnosis and tests
The first stages of an ataxia diagnosis will be a GP's assessment of the symptoms, how quickly they developed and the person's medical history. A physical examination will be performed.
Blood or urine tests may be arranged to rule out other medical conditions.
A referral to a neurologist or specialist paediatrician in the case of children may be required.
Hospital tests may include genetic testing, lumbar puncture (spinal tap) and imaging of the brain with a CT scan or MRI.