Ataxia is a medical term used to describe a lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements, including everyday physical activities like walking or picking up objects. Often referred to as a symptoms of an underlying health issue, ataxia can affect various movements, causing difficulties with speech patterns and language, eye movement and even swallowing.
Persistent ataxia generally results from damage to the part of the brain which controls muscle coordination, known as the cerebellum. Many causes and conditions can lead to ataxia, such as alcohol abuse, certain drugs and/or medications, stroke, tumors, cerebral palsy, brain degeneration and multiple sclerosis. Inherited faulty genes have also been associated to lead to ataxia.
Diagnosis and treatment for ataxia depends largely on the cause and/or condition. Adaptive devices, including walkers or canes, can help patients with ataxia maintain their independence. Chiropractic care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and regular aerobic stretches and exercises can also help improve the symptoms associated with this health issue.
Symptoms of Ataxia
Ataxia is a health issue which can develop gradually over time or it can come on unexpectedly. As a symptom of a number of neurological disorders, ataxia may ultimately lead to:
- Poor coordination
- Unsteady walk along with a tendency to stumble
- Difficulty with fine motor tasks, such as eating, writing or buttoning a shirt
- Changes in speech
- Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements, known as nystagmus
- Difficulty swallowing
When to Visit a Doctor
In the instance that a patient is not aware of whether they may have an underlying health issue that causes ataxia, such as multiple sclerosis, it’s essential to visit a doctor immediately if the patient:
- Loses equilibrium
- Loses muscle coordination at a hand, leg or arm
- Has difficulty walking
- Slurs their speech
- Has trouble swallowing
Causes of Ataxia
Damage, degeneration or loss of neural cells in the section of the brain which controls muscle coordination, or the cerebellum, often results in ataxia. The cerebellum is made up of two pingpong-ball-sized parts of folded tissue located at the base of the brain close to the brainstem. The right side of the cerebellum controls coordination over the right side of the body; the left side of the cerebellum controls coordination on the left side of the body. Diseases that damage the spinal cord and peripheral nerves which connect the cerebellum to the muscles can also lead to ataxia. Ataxia causes include:
- Head trauma. Damage to the brain or spinal cord due to a blow to the head, such as in the case of an automobile accident, can cause acute cerebellar ataxia, which comes on unexpectedly.
- Stroke. After the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of nutrients and oxygen, brain cells die.
- Cerebral palsy. This can be a general term for a group of disorders brought on by damage to a child’s brain during early development, before, during or shortly after birth, which affects the child’s ability to coordinate body movements.
- Autoimmune diseases. Multiple sclerosis, sarcoidosis, celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions can cause ataxia.
- Infections. Ataxia may be an uncommon complication of chickenpox and other viral ailments. It may manifest in the healing phases of the infection and can last for days or weeks. Generally, the ataxia resolves over time.
- Paraneoplastic syndromes. These are rare, degenerative health issues triggered by the body’s own immune system’s reaction to a cancerous tumor, referred to as neoplasm, most frequently from lung, ovarian, breast or lymphatic cancer. Ataxia can appear months or years before the cancer is even diagnosed.
- Tumors. A growth on the brain, cancerous, or malignant, or noncancerous, or benign, can also harm the cerebellum, leading to ataxia.
- Toxic reaction. Ataxia is a possible side effect of certain drugs and/or medications, particularly barbiturates, like phenobarbital; sedatives, like benzodiazepines; as well as some kinds of chemotherapy. These are important to diagnose because the effects are usually reversible. Also, some drugs and/or medications can cause problems with age, which means a person may need to reduce their dose or discontinue its use. Alcohol and drug intoxication; heavy metal poisoning, such as from mercury or lead; and solvent poisoning, like from paint thinner, can also cause ataxia.
- Vitamin E, vitamin B-12 or thiamine deficiency. Not getting enough of these nutrients, due to the inability to absorb them enough, alcohol misuse or other reasons, may also ultimately lead to ataxia.
For a number of adults that develop sporadic ataxia, no particular cause is found. Sporadic ataxia can take lots of forms, including multiple system atrophy, a progressive and degenerative disease.
Dr. Alex Jimenez’s Insights
The cerebellum is the region of the brain which is in charge of controlling movement in the body. Electrical signals are transmitted from the brain through the spinal cord and into the peripheral nerves to stimulate a muscle to contract and initiate movement. Sensory nerves also gather data from the environment regarding position and proprioception. When one or more of these pathway components experiences a problem, it can subsequently lead to ataxia. Ataxia is a medical term utilized to describe the lack of muscle coordination when a voluntary movement is attempted. It can make any motion which requires muscles to function a challenge, from walking to picking up an object, even swallowing. Diagnosis and treatment can help manage and improve the symptoms associated with ataxia.
Diagnosis of Ataxia
If an individual has developed symptoms of ataxia, a healthcare professional may perform a diagnosis in order to look for a treatable cause. Besides running a physical examination and a neurological examination, including assessing a patient’s memory and concentration, vision, hearing, balance, coordination, and reflexes, your doctor might request lab tests, including:
- Imaging studies. A CT scan or MRI of a patient’s brain might help determine possible causes of ataxia. An MRI can sometimes reveal shrinkage of the cerebellum and other brain structures in people with ataxia. It might also demonstrate other findings that are treatable, such as a blood clot or benign tumor, which may be pressing on the cerebellum.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A needle is inserted into the lower spine, or the lumbar spine, between two lumbar bones, or vertebrae, to remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid, which surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord, is transported to a laboratory for testing.
- Genetic testing. A healthcare professional might recommend genetic testing to determine whether a child has the gene mutation which causes hereditary ataxia. Gene tests are available for many but not all of the hereditary ataxias.
Furthermore, diagnosing ataxia may depend on which system is affected. For instance, if the health issue lies in the vestibular system, the patient will experience dizziness, possibly having vertigo or nystagmus. They may also be unable to walk in a straight line and when walking, they will tend to veer to one side. If the health issue lies in the cerebellar system, cerebellar gaits present with a wide-base and generally involves staggering and titubation. Patient will also have difficulty doing the Rhomberg’s test with their eyes open or closed, because they cannot stand with their feet together, as described below.
Testing the Vestibular System
Testing the vestibular system to determine the diagnosis of ataxia can include the Fakuda Stepping Test and the Rhomberg Test. The Fakuda Stepping Test is performed by having the patient march in place with their eyes closed and their arms raised to 90 degrees in front of them. If they rotate more than 30 degrees, the test is considered to be positive. It’s important to note that the patient will rotate toward the side of the vestibular dysfunction. The Rhomberg Test will confirm a diagnosis of ataxia if the patient sways a different direction every time their eyes are closed, as this may indicate vestibular dysfunction.
Testing the Cerebellar System
Testing the cerebellar system to determine the diagnosis of ataxia can include the piano-playing test and the hand-patting test as well as the finger-to-nose test. The piano-playing test and hand-patting test both assess for dysdiadochokinesia. Also in both tests, the patient will have more difficulty moving the limb on the side of cerebellar dysfunction. With the finger-to-nose test, the patient may be hyper/hypo metric in movement and intention tremor may be reveled.
Joint Position Sense
In patients with changes to their joint position sense, conscious proprioception may be diminished, especially in elderly patients and patients with neuropathy. Patients with joint position sense losses often rely on visual information to help compensate. When visual input is removed or diminished, these patient’s have exaggerated ataxia.
Motor Strength and Coordination
If the patient has reduced frontal lobe control, they may end up with an apraxia of gait, where they have difficult with the volitional control of movement. Extrapyramidal disorders, such as Parkinson disease, result in the inability to control motor coordination. Pelvic girdle muscle weakness due to a myopathy in this instance will produce an abnormal gait pattern.
Treatment for Ataxia
There’s no specific treatment for ataxia. In some cases, treating the underlying health issue often resolves the ataxia, such as quitting the use of drugs and/or medications that cause it. In other cases, such as ataxia that results from chickenpox or other viral infection, it’s likely to resolve on its own. A healthcare professional might recommend treatment to manage symptoms, such as pain, fatigue or nausea, or they may recommend the use of adaptive devices or therapies to help with ataxia. Chiropractic care is a safe and effective, alternative treatment option which focuses on the treatment of a variety of injuries and/or conditions associated with the musculoskeletal and nervous system. A chiropractor commonly uses spinal adjustments and manual manipulations to correct any spinal misalignment, or subluxation, which may be causing a patient’s symptoms. In addition, a doctor of chiropractic, or chiropractor, may also recommend a series of appropriate lifestyle modifications, including nutritional advice and exercise plans, in order to restore a patient’s strength, mobility and flexibility. Chiropractic care together with the proper fitness routine can help speed up the patient’s recovery process.
Ataxia brought on by conditions like multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy might not be curable. In that circumstance, a healthcare professional might have the ability to recommend adaptive devices. These can include:
- Hiking sticks or walkers for walking
- Modified utensils for eating
- Communication aids for speaking
A patient with ataxia might benefit from particular therapies, including: physical therapy to help improve coordination and enhance mobility; occupational treatment to help with daily living activities, such as eating on their own; and speech therapy to improve speech as well as aid with swallowing.
Coping and Support
The challenges a person face when living with ataxia or with a child with the condition might make the patient feel lonely or it may contribute to depression and anxiety. Talking to a counselor or therapist may help. Or perhaps the patient may find encouragement and understanding in a support group, possibly for ataxia or for their specific underlying condition, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Although support groups aren’t for everyone, they may be good sources of advice. Group members often know about the newest treatments and tend to share their own experiences. If you’re interested, your healthcare professional may be able to recommend a group in your area. The scope of our information is limited to chiropractic as well as to spinal injuries and conditions. To discuss the subject matter, please feel free to ask Dr. Jimenez or contact us at 915-850-0900 .
Curated by Dr. Alex Jimenez
Additional Topics: Sciatica
Sciatica is medically referred to as a collection of symptoms, rather than a single injury and/or condition. Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain, or sciatica, can vary in frequency and intensity, however, it is most commonly described as a sudden, sharp (knife-like) or electrical pain that radiates from the low back down the buttocks, hips, thighs and legs into the foot. Other symptoms of sciatica may include, tingling or burning sensations, numbness and weakness along the length of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica most frequently affects individuals between the ages of 30 and 50 years. It may often develop as a result of the degeneration of the spine due to age, however, the compression and irritation of the sciatic nerve caused by a bulging or herniated disc, among other spinal health issues, may also cause sciatic nerve pain.