Ataxia 

Introduction 

Children with disability

Dr Sheila Shribman talks about how parents and health professionals can work together to support children with disability.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Who is affected by ataxia?

In the UK, around 10,000 adults have ataxia and several thousand children are also thought to be affected. 

Acquired ataxia is a fairly common complication of conditions such as stroke, encephalitis (infection of the brain) and multiple sclerosis.

Hereditary ataxia is much rarer. The most common type, Friedreich's ataxia, accounts for half of all cases of hereditary ataxia.

Life with a disability

An increasing proportion of the UK's population is learning to live with the particular challenges that disability brings

Ataxia is a term that describes a group of neurological disorders that affect co-ordination, balance and speech.

It usually results from damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum, but it can also be caused by damage to other parts of the nervous system.

The symptoms of ataxia can affect every part of the body and cause difficulties with:

  • walking
  • balance
  • speaking
  • vision 
  • swallowing (dysphagia)
  • performing tasks that require a high degree of physical control, such as writing and eating

Read more about the symptoms of ataxia.

Types of ataxia

There are currently more than 50 recorded types of ataxia. Some experts believe the true figure could be more than 100, each with its own specific cause.

There are three broad categories of ataxia:

  • acquired ataxia – where symptoms develop as a result of trauma, stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), brain tumour, nutritional deficiencies, poisoning or other health conditions that damage the cerebellum or nervous system
  • hereditary ataxia – where the symptoms develop slowly over many years and are caused by underlying problems with the genes that a person inherits from their parents
  • idiopathic late onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA) – where the cerebellum is progressively damaged over time for reasons that are still unclear

What causes ataxia?

The brain and nerve damage associated with ataxia can be part of a neurological condition such as MS, or can be caused by a head injury, lack of oxygen to the brain or excess alcohol consumption.

Hereditary ataxia is caused by a faulty gene that is passed on by family members who may or may not be affected. The most common type is Friedreich's ataxia.

Read more about the possible causes of ataxia.

Treating ataxia

Some types of ataxia can be treated, but in most cases there is no cure. In some cases of acquired ataxia, it may be possible to relieve symptoms by treating the underlying cause.

For hereditary ataxia and ILOCA, the symptoms get progressively worse over time. Treatment therefore involves helping a person cope with the day-to-day problems caused by their condition.

For example, a person may benefit from rehabilitation, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and they may need to use a wheelchair to help with mobility. Speech and language therapy may help with slurred speech and swallowing difficulties.

Read more about treating ataxia.

Outlook

The outlook for ataxia depends on the underlying cause and life expectancy varies considerably. For example, some people with Friedreich's ataxia die in their thirties, while those with less severe ataxia can have a normal life expectancy.

If you have ataxia that's caused by a condition such as multiple sclerosis, you may experience repeated episodes of ataxia, whereas the symptoms of hereditary ataxia and ILOCA will become progressively worse.

Page last reviewed: 04/07/2013

Next review due: 04/07/2015

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