Ataxia is a neurological condition affecting muscle coordination, eye movements, speech, and the ability to swallow. Ataxia is usually the result of damage or degeneration within the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination. It is often triggered by underlying causes such trauma, disease or other conditions. Some people with ataxia are born with a genetic defect that causes brain cell degeneration over time, which is accompanied by worsening coordination problems. Many conditions can lead to brain cell damage, as these cells are also linked to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia is often caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells in the cerebellum. In addition, ataxia may be caused by diseases or conditions that damage the spinal cord and peripheral nerves that connect the cerebellum to the muscles. These conditions may include:

  • Stroke
  • Head injury
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Transient ischemic attack
  • Tumors
  • Heavy metal or chemical poisonings
  • Excessive alcohol or drug intoxication
  • Vitamin E or B12 deficiencies
  • Genetic autosomal disorders

It is also believed that certain viral infections such as chicken pox, Coxsackie disease or Epstein-Barr disease may also cause symptoms of ataxia.

Symptoms of Ataxia

In addition to poor coordination, people with ataxia may experience:

  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks
  • Changes in speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Loss of balance
  • Frequent stumbling
  • Difficulty walking

The symptoms of ataxia may develop over time or come on suddenly.

Diagnosis of Ataxia

To diagnose ataxia, a physical and neurological examination will be performed. Patient's memory, concentration, vision, hearing, balance, and coordination will be tested. Additional diagnostic tests may include:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Spinal tap

Genetic testing may also be performed to rule out any hereditary conditions.

Treatment of Ataxia

Treatment for ataxia involves treating the underlying condition to resolve the symptoms. Many of these conditions resolve on their own, while others may require medication or more advanced treatments. Ataxia caused by multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy may not be treatable, and patients may benefit from adaptive devices such as canes or walkers and communication aids. Physical, occupational and speech therapy may also be beneficial in restoring function and the ability to perform everyday tasks.

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