What is ataxia?
Ataxia is when you have a problem with coordination, causing you to move in an uncertain, awkward or even clumsy way. It’s usually a sign of a problem with an area of your brain, ears or other parts of your nervous system.
Is ataxia a symptom of a disease?
Ataxia can refer to a group of diseases or a symptom of certain diseases. As a symptom, ataxia is extremely common. Ataxia as a condition is not as common and tends to happen only with certain genetic conditions and diseases.
What is the difference between ataxia and apraxia?
Ataxia and apraxia sound alike and have many similarities. However, there are also key differences.
- Apraxia: This condition affects your brain, making it hard for you to do or describe actions you already know how to do. It happens because your brain has a problem with processing these actions.
- Ataxia: This is a symptom that causes problems with coordinating muscle movements, affecting all actions (regardless of whether they're new or familiar). Your brain doesn’t have any problem with processing or describing the tasks.
What are the three main types of ataxia?
There are three main types of ataxia, which happen in different ways.
- Cerebellar: This type of ataxia happens because of a problem in the cerebellum, a part of your brain that manages how different parts of the brain work together.
- Sensory: Your body has a built-in “self-positioning” sense, which lets your brain track where each body part is. An example of this is how you know where your hands and feet are, even if you can’t see them (such as with your eyes closed or in a dark room). Sensory ataxia disrupts your self-positioning sense.
- Vestibular: This type involves a problem with your inner ears, which are part of your sense of balance. With your sense of balance disrupted, it’s hard to coordinate how you move.
What are the most common causes of ataxia?
Because there are different types of ataxia, there are also many different possible causes. Experts group the causes into the following categories:
- Acquired. These are conditions you develop or causes that affect you at some point in your life. Some of these causes are temporary or reversible.
- Inherited. These are genetic conditions, meaning you inherit them from one or both parents.
- Sporadic. These conditions happen because of spontaneous DNA mutations, which happen randomly a fetus develops in the uterus. The mutations from these don’t come from either of your parents and symptoms may appear when you’re an adult. Experts use another term, “idiopathic,” when they can't identify the cause.
Some examples of conditions or circumstances that can cause ataxia include:
- Alcohol intoxication (being drunk).
- Brain tumors (or other forms of cancer).
- Celiac disease.
- Congenital disorders (conditions you have at birth, such as Chiari malformation).
- Concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
- Degenerative brain conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
- Drugs (prescription and recreational, especially medications for epilepsy and depression).
- Fatigue and stress.
- Genetic disorders (conditions you have at birth that you inherited from one or both parents, such as Friedreich's ataxia, ataxia-telangiectasia, Niemann-Pick Disease, Wilson’s disease, etc.).
- Huffing substances like toluene, gasoline, glue, spray paint or other inhalants.
- Immune and inflammatory conditions (such as multiple sclerosis).
- Infections (these can happen because of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi).
- Radiation sickness.
- Stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).
- Toxic exposure to chemicals, metals or substances like mercury.
- Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
- Vitamin deficiencies and nutrition problems (such as low vitamin B12 levels).
Care and Treatment
How is ataxia treated?
The treatments for ataxia depend on why it happens in the first place. Some of the causes, especially the temporary ones like alcohol intoxication, may not need any treatment. Others may only need minor treatments, such as vitamin supplements for a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Because there are so many causes and each case is different, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what kind of treatments are possible and likely to help you. The information they provide will be the most relevant to your particular situation.
Can I treat ataxia myself?
In many cases, people develop ataxia symptoms because they’re tired or stressed. In these cases, rest and downtime are all you need. The same is true for ataxia that comes from drinking alcohol (except when it happens with dangerous amounts).
However, under certain circumstances, ataxia isn’t a symptom you should try to self-diagnose, treat yourself or ignore. More about those circumstances is below under “When should ataxia be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?”
How can ataxia be prevented?
There are some preventable causes of ataxia. However, many of the causes happen unpredictably, so you can’t avoid or prevent them. It’s also not always possible to reduce the risk of developing this symptom.
The following causes of ataxia are usually — but not always — preventable:
- Alcohol intoxication (being drunk). You can avoid ataxia from this by drinking in moderation or not at all. Some people may also have medical conditions like alcohol intolerance that make it much easier to get drunk, so ataxia is much harder for them to avoid when drinking.
- Concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Wearing helmets and safety gear can reduce your risk of developing ataxia from injuries to your brain.
- Drugs (prescription and recreational, especially medications for epilepsy and depression). Avoiding recreational drugs is one way to avoid ataxia from them. If you have ataxia from a prescribed medication, you shouldn’t stop taking it without first talking to your provider. Dangerous side effects or complications are possible if you stop taking certain medications suddenly, so it's safest to talk to your provider before stopping.
- Fatigue and stress. Getting enough sleep is a key way to avoid fatigue-related ataxia. Managing your stress is also important.
- Huffing substances like toluene, gasoline, glue, spray paint and other inhalants. Ataxia is just one of the many possible complications that happen with huffing. Abusing inhalants like this is dangerous, so it's best to avoid this practice or stop as soon as possible.
- Infections (these can happen because of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi). Treating infections, especially ear infections (which can disrupt your sense of balance), is a key way to stop ataxia from affecting your ears, nervous system or brain.
- Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Many conditions that affect your brain’s circulation, especially stroke, have a link to your weight and physical health. Taking care of your physical health can sometimes prevent — or at least delay — developing conditions that could cause such problems.
- Toxic exposure to chemicals, metals or substances (such as mercury, lead, etc.). Avoiding toxic substances is one way to avoid developing ataxia. If you have to work around these substances, following safety guidelines and using protective gear are essential.
- Vitamin deficiencies and nutrition problems (such as low vitamin B12 levels). Eating a healthy diet can help you avoid nutritional deficiencies that lead to ataxia.
When to Call the Doctor
When should ataxia be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?
There are certain warning signs that ataxia is happening because of a more severe problem that needs medical attention. You should talk to a healthcare provider if you have ataxia with any of the following circumstances:
- If it happens suddenly or you notice it getting worse over time.
- If it happens with certain symptoms like headaches, nausea and vomiting.
- If it happens with trouble swallowing (dysphagia), difficulty speaking (aphasia), or small uncontrollable eye movements (nystagmus).
- If it happens with any symptoms of a stroke.
- If it lasts for more than a few days.
- If it’s interfering with your activities and routine.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the life expectancy of someone with ataxia?
Whether or not ataxia will affect your lifespan depends entirely on why it’s happening. Many of the causes of ataxia — especially the curable, reversible or temporary ones — won't affect how long you'll live.
However, some causes of ataxia can have major impacts on your life. Some can shorten how long you can expect to live, keep you from participating in or enjoying certain activities, or can make it difficult for you to live your life without some form of assistance. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what effect — if any — ataxia will have on your lifespan and how you live.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Ataxia is often a symptom of conditions that affect your brain, nervous system or ears. It can also be a condition you have when you're born or develop later in life. This issue can have little or no effect on your life or cause severe disruptions. It can also be a temporary or curable issue, while others will experience it as a long-term or permanent problem. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about why you have this symptom and your options for treatment. They can also recommend treatments or ways to adapt to this condition to limit or prevent disruptions to your life.
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