Ataxia: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
What is Ataxia?
Ataxia is a degenerative disorder of the neurological system. The term itself means “without coordination”. Those who are diagnosed with this condition generally have difficulty controlling their muscles and voluntary movements. The disease is a result of degeneration in the cerebellum – the brain part that controls movements.
Ataxia is a condition that affects people of all ages. Its complications are very serious, and in some cases can even be fatal. Up to now, researchers have discovered more than 50 different types of ataxia. Some of the most common include:
- Ataxia Telangiectasia;
- Friedreich’s Ataxia;
- Multiple System Atrophy;
- Sporadic Ataxia;
- Spinocerebellar Ataxia;
- Episodic Ataxia;
- Hereditary Ataxia;
What are the signs & symptoms of Ataxia?
Ataxia can develop slowly over decades, or quickly in just a few months. Its symptoms vary between people. Some of the most common signs include:
- Lack of coordination;
- Slurred speech;
- Difficulty walking;
- Stumbling frequently;
- Difficulty eating, swallowing, and writing;
- Abnormal eye movements (nystagmus);
- Impaired fine motor skills.
Those who suffer from the disease often need wheelchairs, walkers, and/or scooters to move around.
When to see a doctor?
Generally speaking, you should contact a doctor as soon as you exhibit any of the following signs:
- Loss of balance;
- Poor muscle coordination;
- Difficulty walking/ speaking/ swallowing.
What are the causes of Ataxia?
Ataxia is the result of damage/ loss of nerve cells in the cerebellum, which is located towards the brain’s lower posterior part. In addition, damage to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves connecting the cerebellum with your muscles is also a cause of the condition.
There are various factors that may cause damage to the cerebellum. These include:
- Alcohol. Excessive consumption of alcohol may cause a toxic reaction from the body.
- Medications. Certain medications like phenobarbital and benzodiazepines are also potential causes of brain damage.
- Physical head injury. A severe injury from an accident may result in acute cerebellar ataxia.
- Stroke. Stroke may interfere with the supply of blood to the brain. Without enough oxygen and nutrients, the nerve cells eventually die.
- Tumor. Abnormal tissue growth/ genetic mutation is a common cause of cerebellum damage.
- Autoimmune diseases. This general term refers to conditions in which the immune system malfunctions and attacks other body parts. These include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, sarcoidosis, celiac disease, etc.
- Infections. In some cases, viral infections such as chickenpox may lead to the development of ataxia.
- Cerebral palsy. Developmental disorders like cerebral palsy cause damage to a child’s brain, hence hindering their movement co-ordination.
Diagnosis & Treatment
To diagnose the condition, the doctor may conduct one of the following procedures:
- Neurological examination. This involves checking your memory, ability to concentrate and retain balance, vision, hearing, and reflexes.
- Imaging tests. An MRI/ CT scan may be necessary to identify critical warning signs such as cerebellum shrinkage, blood clot, and benign tumor.
- Lumbar puncture. Also called spinal tap, this procedure involves inserting a needle into the lower back (lumbar) to collect some cerebrospinal fluid. From this sample, the doctor may determine if you are affected.
- Gene tests. Gene testing may be requested to find out potential genetic mutation, which is a common cause of hereditary ataxia.
Depending on the specific causes, the doctor may recommend one of the following treatment methods to the patients:
- Medications such as SSRI’s, Amantadine and Baclofen can be used to control symptoms such as fatigue, depression, imbalance, stiffness, and spasticity.
- Adaptive equipment (e.g: walkers, canes, wheelchairs) allows for independent movements of the patients.
- Physical therapy & Occupational therapy may improve your coordination, mobility and the ability to perform daily tasks.
- Speech therapy is a viable solution to speech and swallowing difficulties.
- Stem cell therapy is capable of significantly improving brain functions. In this treatment, Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from either adult tissue or the umbilical cord are transplanted into the patient’s body to stimulate the growth of nerve tissues, hence effectively reversing the condition’s symptoms.
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Ataxia: What are the Types? https://www.webmd.com/brain/ataxia-types-brain-and-nervous-system#1. Accessed on July 18, 2019.
Stem Cell Treatment for Ataxia. https://stemcelltreatmentnow.com/treatments/stem-cell-treatment-ataxia/. Accessed on July 18, 2019.
Ataxia – Stem cell therapy. https://globalstemcells.com/treatment/ataxia/. Accessed on July 18, 2019.
Ataxia Stem Cell Therapy Explained. https://fclinicglobal.com/en/ataxia/. Accessed on July 18, 2019.