Ataxia describes a lack of ability to move the muscles in a coordinated fashion. People with ataxia have irregular or awkward movements.
What is going on in the body?
Though most commonly used to describe the way a person walks, this condition can affect any of the muscles in the body. Problems with coordination can occur for many reasons, ranging from drinking alcohol to having a stroke. Ataxia may cause difficulty with everyday activities, such as tying a shoelace or driving a car.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
There are many possible causes of this condition. Examples include:
- damage to the brain from head injury, stroke, or multiple sclerosis
- infection in the brain, such as meningitis, syphilis, AIDS, or Lyme disease
- effects of a drug or toxin, such as alcohol, barbiturates, seizure medications or "sniffing glue"
- brain tumors or other cancers
- vitamin deficiencies, such as lack of thiamine or vitamin B12
- hormone abnormalities, such as hypothyroidism
- inherited conditions that affect the brain, such as Friedreich's ataxia or ataxia-telangiectasia
- bleeding into or around the brain from injury or trauma
- nerve damage, which often affects walking and may occur with diabetes, lead poisoning, or certain cancer chemotherapy medications
- old age, which also commonly affects walking. Decreased vision and strength in the elderly also affect walking.
- hydrocephalus, which is increased fluid on the inside of the brain
- movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease or Huntington chorea
- balance problems due to irritation or damage to the middle ear, which aids in balance. Balance problems may occur with infections of the middle ear, such as Meniere's disease.
Other causes are also possible. Sometimes, a cause cannot be found.
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention depends on the cause. For example, avoiding alcohol will prevent cases caused by drinking alcohol. Practicing safer sex can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of syphilis infection or AIDS, two possible causes of ataxia. Many cases cannot be prevented.
How is the condition diagnosed?
The healthcare professional will take a medical history and perform a physical exam, giving particular attention to how the muscles and nerves respond. Further testing, such as blood tests, a cranial CT scan, or a spinal tap may be needed, depending on the suspected cause.
Long Term Effects
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Depending on the cause of ataxia, there may or may not be long-term effects. For example, ataxia from alcohol usually goes away when the person is no longer intoxicated. If ataxia is related to a brain tumor or cancer, death may occur. Multiple sclerosis can result in permanent disability and severe weakness.
What are the risks to others?
In the large majority of cases, there are no risks to others. There may be a risk to others if, for example, a drunk person drives a car. In some cases, an infection is the cause of ataxia. The underlying infection may be contagious.
What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatment may be short-term or lifelong. Those with Huntington chorea, for example, may need treatment and care for the rest of their lives. Those who drank too much alcohol may need no further treatment once the alcohol leaves their system, or if the alcohol problem has recurred, may need rehabilitation for the drinking problem.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
All medications have possible side effects. These may include allergic reactions, stomach upset, and headaches. Particular side effects depend on the medications used. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or an allergic reaction to the anesthetic or to any pain medicines used. Other specific side effects depend on the surgical procedure involved.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
Treatment may be short-term or lifelong. Those with Huntington chorea, for example, may need treatment and care for the rest of their lives. Those who drank too much alcohol may need no further treatment once the alcohol leaves their system.
How is the condition monitored?
Monitoring depends on the underlying cause. Those with diabetes or AIDS often need frequent visits to the healthcare professional for blood tests and other monitoring. People whose infections are treated may need no further monitoring after they recover.
Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 1996, Bennett et al.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.