What is Ataxia?

Ataxia can be a confusing and complicated disease and we’re here to help. The term “ataxia” is often used by doctors to describe specific symptoms related to coordination such as unsteady walking or poor balance, difficulty with hand coordination slurred or unclear speech. Additionally, there can be eye symptoms such as blurry vision, double vision or difficulty focusing and trouble with swallowing. Most of the time, balance and walking problems are the first symptoms. Such problems arise from diseases that affect a particular part of the brain called the cerebellum which is located in the back part of the brain. Many problems can damage the cerebellum such as multiple sclerosis, infections, medications, alcohol, nutritional deficiencies, and even strokes; most of these can be diagnosed relatively easily, with brain MRI being one of the most valuable tests. When such obvious problems are not present, ataxia can result from a shrinking of the cerebellum (atrophy). Such patients are labeled to have “degenerative” ataxia. Such ataxias can begin at any stage in life, from childhood to older ages. Many of them have a genetic mutation causing the ataxia. You don’t have to have a family history to have a genetic mutation. There are also patients who have ataxia from currently unknown causes, not unlike what is the case with better known diseases like Alzheimer disease, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease.