Ataxia is a term for a group of disorders that affect co-ordination, balance and speech. Visit your GP if you or your child have unexplained symptoms such as balance and co-ordination problems or difficulty walking, talking or swallowing.
Any part of the body can be affected by ataxia, but people with ataxia often have problems with:
- balance and walking
- tasks that require a high degree of control, such as writing and eating
The exact symptoms and their severity vary depending on the type of ataxia a person has.
Types of ataxia
There are many different types of ataxia, which can be divided into three broad categories:
- acquired ataxia – where symptoms develop as the result of trauma, a stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), a brain tumour, nutritional deficiencies, or other problems that damage the brain or nervous system
- hereditary ataxia – where symptoms develop slowly over many years and are caused by faulty genes that a person inherits from their parents; the most common type is Friedreich's ataxia
- idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA) – where the brain is progressively damaged over time for reasons that are unclear
When to get medical advice
Visit your GP if you or your child have unexplained symptoms such as balance and co-ordination problems or difficulty walking, talking or swallowing.
Your GP may ask whether you have any family history of ataxia. They will also want to know about the progression of your symptoms.
They might carry out a simple assessment of your balance, walking and co-ordination.
Your GP may also ask how much alcohol you drink and whether you're taking any form of medication.
This is because too much alcohol and certain medications can cause ataxia-like symptoms in some people.
You may be referred for a series of tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as an infection. The tests will probably include blood and urine tests.
If your symptoms suggest you may have acquired ataxia because of a serious underlying condition, it's likely you'll be admitted immediately to your nearest hospital.
Or, you'll be referred to a neurologist (a specialist in brain and nervous system conditions) for further testing or, in the case of children, a paediatrician.
Causes of ataxia
Ataxia usually results from damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum. But ataxia can also be caused by damage to other parts of the nervous system.
Hereditary ataxia is caused by a faulty gene passed on by family members, who may or may not be affected.
How ataxia is treated
In most cases, there's no cure for ataxia and supportive treatment to control the symptoms is necessary.
This may include:
- speech and language therapy to help with speech and swallowing problems
- physiotherapy to help with movement problems
- occupational therapy to help you cope with the day-to-day problems
- medication to control muscle, bladder, heart and eye problems
In a few cases, it's possible to improve ataxia or stop it getting worse by treating the underlying cause.
The outlook for ataxia can vary considerably. It largely depends on the type of ataxia you have.
Some types may remain relatively stable or even improve with time. But most will get progressively worse over many years.
Life expectancy is generally shorter than normal for people with hereditary ataxia, although some people can live well into their 50s, 60s or beyond.
In more severe cases, the condition can be fatal in childhood or early adulthood.
For acquired ataxia, the outlook depends on the underlying cause. Some cases may improve or stay the same, while other cases may get gradually worse over time and reduce life expectancy.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.