Diseases & Conditions

Ataxy - Ataxia


Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

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 be due to many different types of problems, ranging from drinking alcohol to having a stroke. Ataxia may cause problems 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, Treponema pallidum\ bacteria. Less often, syphilis is transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby. This form of syphilis is known as \congenital syphilis.\ ',CAPTION,'Syphilis');" onmouseout="return nd();">syphilis, AIDS, or Borrelia burgdorferi.\ It is passed to humans through tick bites. ',CAPTION,'Lyme Disease');" onmouseout="return nd();">Lyme disease
  • effects of a drug or toxin, such as alcohol, barbiturates, seizure medications or "sniffing glue"
  • poisoning
  • brain tumors or other cancers
  • vitamin deficiencies, such as lack of vitamin B2\ \niacin\ \vitamin B6\ \vitamin B12\ \folate\ \biotin\ \pantothenic acid\',CAPTION,'Vitamin B1');" onmouseout="return nd();">thiamine or B1\ \B2\ \B6\ \pantothenic acid\ \folic acid\ \niacin\ \biotin\ Cobalamin is the general name for vitamin B12. ',CAPTION,'Vitamin B12');" onmouseout="return nd();">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.


    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    Ataxia itself may cause a person to walk awkwardly, with irregular movements. An example of ataxic movement would be someone who is clearly drunk. Common symptoms may include:

  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • weakness
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • But to help make a diagnosis about the actual cause, a healthcare provider may want to know many different things about a person who has coordination problems. These may include:

  • when the problem started
  • whether the problem came on quickly or slowly
  • whether the problem is continuous, or if episodes come and go
  • if any family members have coordination problems
  • if the person drinks alcohol, takes illegal drugs, or uses any prescription medications
  • if the person has been sick or had a fever lately
  • if the person has ever had a sexually transmitted disease
  • if the person has ever had a head injury
  • if the person has any other medical conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    The healthcare provider will ask about medical history and perform a physical exam. This should include how muscles and nerves respond. Further testing may be needed depending on the suspected cause.

    Blood tests are commonly done. Special x-rays, such as a cranial CT, may be performed. In some cases, a sample of spinal fluid is obtained with a spinal tap. Other tests may be needed in some cases.


    Prevention & Expectations

    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 prevent many cases from syphilis infections or AIDS. Many cases cannot be prevented.

    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.


    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Treatment is directed at the underlying cause. For example, drugs can help reduce ataxia if Parkinson's disease is the cause. Antibiotics may be needed for an infection. Surgery may remove a brain tumor. If a stroke is the cause, the only treatment may be physical therapy to improve function as much as possible.

    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 medicatiions used. Any surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and reactions to any pain medicines used. Specific side effects depend on the surgery being done.

    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 close monitoring with frequent visits to the healthcare provider and blood tests. People whose infections are treated may need no further monitoring after they recover.


    Attribution

    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Wendel, Sandra J., BA
    Edit Date:06/20/00
    Reviewer:Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
    Date Reviewed:08/20/01

    Sources

    Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 1996, Bennett et al.

    Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.