Ataxia is a term used to describe a group of neurological disorders that are caused by damage to the nervous system and the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination. Ataxia is believed to affect around 10,000 adults in the UK, in addition to thousands of children.
There are more than 50 different types of ataxia, which are classified into three main categories:
- Acquired ataxia: this form of ataxia occurs as a result of injury, trauma or conditions such as strokes and multiple sclerosis, which affect the brain. This is the most common type of ataxia.
- Hereditary ataxia: hereditary ataxia is rare; symptoms develop progressively as a result of the genes an individual inherits from their parents. The most common form of hereditary ataxia is Friedreich’s ataxia.
- Idiopathic late onset cerebellar ataxia: the cause of this type of ataxia is unknown; it occurs when the cerebellum becomes damaged progressively.
What are the symptoms of ataxia?
Ataxia primarily affects speech, coordination and balance and it can therefore contribute to symptoms that affect the whole body and make day to day tasks difficult. Some common symptoms include:
- unbalanced walking
- difficulty balancing
- speech problems
- difficulty swallowing (known as dysphagia)
- problems with vision
- difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing
What are the causes of ataxia?
Many cases of ataxia develop as a result of a brain injury, a stroke (caused by lack of oxygen supply to the brain) or a condition that affects the brain and the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis. Ataxia can also be caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
Hereditary ataxia is caused by the inheritance of a faulty gene, which is passed from a parent to a child.
How is ataxia treated?
In most cases, there is no cure for ataxia. However, it is possible to provide treatment to reduce symptoms and make day to day functions easier and less stressful. Doctors usually work with physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists to rehabilitate patients and improve their motor skills, balance, coordination and speech.
In some cases of acquired ataxia, treating the underlying cause can often have a dramatic impact on symptoms.
What is the prognosis for people with ataxia?
Ataxia affects people in different ways and in many cases, if there is an effective treatment for the underlying cause of acquired ataxia, people are able to enjoy a long and healthy life with the right support.
When ataxia is linked to progressive conditions, such as MS, or the cause of ataxia is unknown, symptoms tend to become more severe with time.
In the case of hereditary ataxia, the prognosis is not so positive. Most people with Friedreich’s ataxia will only live to their thirties.