Ataxia is a neurological problem that results in lack of coordination during voluntary movements. The term ataxia is derived from the Greek word for incoordination or lack of order, a taxis. In an individual with this condition, a particular portion of the nervous system that controls muscle movements is abnormal, which in turn leads to profound symptoms. Having been diagnosed with ataxia is like a nightmare for patients. Nevertheless, with correct diagnosis of the underlying disorder, appropriate treatment is done to improve the quality of life for the affected individual.
Causes and Symptoms
Ataxia can be caused due to hereditary or acquired factors. The former encompasses genetic defects, which lead to the formation of unusual proteins, thereby affecting the normal functioning of the cerebellum and spinal cord. Known causes include head trauma, chickenpox, brain tumor, transient ischemic attack, and stroke. Symptoms related to lack of coordination are also manifested due to serious medical conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and paraneoplastic syndrome.
The symptoms depend upon the specific reason behind the neurological dysfunction. They can be manifested suddenly or over a period of time. Also, based on the causative factor, it may disturb eye movements, hands, feet, body and at times, speech. Some of the notable symptoms are poor coordination, loss of balance or tendency to stumble, swallowing problems, irregular eye movements, and uncontrolled change in speech.
Treatment is based on what causes the disorder. Thus, it is crucial to find out the underlying cause before proceeding for therapeutic intervention. In majority of the cases, ataxia is caused due to dysfunction in the cerebellum, a section of the brain that regulates movement coordination. Any injury or damage (temporary or permanent) to the nerve cells in this portion results in functional impairment of the cerebellum, resulting in ataxia. Other than this, diseases affecting the nerves that connect the muscles and the cerebellum also lead to the condition.
Medical diagnosis is done based on physical examination, medical history, and family history of the patient. In order to identify its type, the physician may conduct a complete neurological evaluation. According to the diagnostic results, the treatment will be taken forward. There is no specific treatment or cure for ataxia. Many of the patients (specially of the acquired type) recover by themselves, without following any therapeutic procedure, while others receive physical and speech therapy sessions pertaining to the manifested symptoms.
Treatment for acute cerebellar ataxia usually involves physical therapy, and patients of this cerebellum dysfunction recover with time, within a few weeks to months. On the other hand, spinocerebellar type is a hereditary, progressive, and irreversible ailment, that often causes disability. Consequently, treatment is focused on managing the symptoms. If required, supportive devices such as canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and communicative devices are recommended as a part of the therapeutic program.
The Friedreich's type affects both the sensory and cerebellar parts, while the former is more severe. Treatment requires administration of medications, and at times, a surgical procedure for the heart or spine. As the condition worsens, assistive devices are used to improve the mobility of the patient. Last but not the least, ataxia telangiectasia syndrome is resulted due to problems in both sensory and cerebellar, with the latter being more dominative. For treatment, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy are practiced to make the patient independent of others.