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What is ataxia?

The word “ataxia” comes from the Greek word “a taxis,” which means “without order or without coordination.” Thus, ataxia means without coordination.

Persons who are diagnosed with ataxia experience a failure of muscle control in their arms and legs which may result in a lack of balance, coordination, and possibly a disturbance in gait. Ataxia may affect the fingers, hands, arms, legs, body, speech, and even eye movements.

The word ataxia is often used to describe the incoordination of symptoms that may accompany infections, injuries, other diseases, and/or degenerative changes in the central nervous system. It also describes a group of specific degenerative diseases of the central nervous system called the hereditary and sporadic ataxias. The term ataxia is a symptom – it is not a specific diagnosis. Ataxia may also refer to a group, or family, of disorders.

Many ataxias are hereditary; however, some can occur in families with no previous history of ataxia. In this case, the ataxia is referred to as sporadic ataxia.

What causes ataxia?

Most disorders that result in ataxia are found to have degeneration, or atrophy, of the cells in the part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum is located at the back of the head. Its function is to coordinate voluntary muscle movements and to maintain posture, balance, and equilibrium. 

The spine can also be affected. The terms cerebellar degeneration and spinocerebellar degeneration may be used to refer to this type of damage to the nervous system.

The various abnormal genes that cause ataxia do have something in common: they make abnormal proteins that affect nerve cells, primarily in the cerebellum and in the spinal cord. They may also affect other parts of the brain.

The affected nerve cells begin to function poorly and ultimately degenerate. As the disease progresses, muscles become less and less responsive to the commands of the brain. This causes balance and coordination to become a greater problem. 

Treatment for ataxia:

At this time there is no cure for the hereditary ataxias. There is also no medication currently available which treats the specific symptom of ataxia.

If ataxia is due to a stroke, a low vitamin level, or exposure to a toxic drug or chemical, then treatment is aimed at treating those specific conditions.

The treatment for the incoordination or imbalance mostly involves the use of adaptive devices to allow the individual to maintain as much independence as possible. Such devices may include the use of a cane, crutches, walker, or wheelchair. Physical therapy, speech therapy, and medications to help symptoms such as tremor, stiffness, depression, spasticity, and sleep disorders may also be beneficial.

Research is being conducted on cerebellar and spinocerebellar degeneration including work aimed at finding the cause(s) of ataxias and ways to treat, cure, and ultimately prevent them, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.