What Is Ataxia? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms

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  • 0:03 Definition of Ataxia
  • 0:54 Causes of Ataxia
  • 1:16 Symptoms of Ataxia
  • 2:28 Treatment of Ataxia
  • 2:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Ataxia is a disorder of movement, coordination, or balance that can be caused by hereditary deficiencies or a specific life event. In this lesson, you'll learn about what causes ataxia, as well as its common symptoms and treatment options.

Definition of Ataxia

Have you ever tripped while walking or tried to throw a ball and completely missed your target? Every once in awhile, most of us are a little clumsy or uncoordinated. But ataxia is a condition that leads to excessive issues with coordination.

The root of the word ataxia (Greek in origin) means without order or incoordination. People who have ataxia have problems with coordination due to abnormalities in the nervous system. They have trouble controlling movement and balance due to these abnormalities, making voluntary movements difficult.

The cerebellum is a part of the brain that controls coordination, and damage to this region or to the spinal column may increase prevalence of ataxia. The most commonly affected body parts are the fingers, hands, arms, and legs, though speech and eye movements may also be affected.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia can be caused by an infection, an injury, damage to the cerebellum, another type of disease, or a degenerative disorder. Less common causes include vitamin deficiencies, tumors, and toxic reactions to some type of poisoning. Ataxia may be caused by a specific event or may be hereditary and passed along through certain gene defects.

Symptoms of Ataxia

Symptoms vary based on the type of ataxia an individual has and may include unsteady walking, changes in speech, difficult swallowing, darting eye movements, and difficulty with fine motor skills like writing or getting dressed. Inherited recessive disorders may begin to show during childhood years, though there are genetic tests that can screen for the condition. It is also possible for adult-onset of inherited ataxia disorders, and some individuals may not develop symptoms until after the age of 60!

The first symptoms involve decreased balance and coordination and slurring of speech. Over time, walking becomes difficult, and fine motor skills decline. In some situations, eye movement may slow, and even swallowing may become harder. Inherited ataxia types are degenerative, and patients will see worsened symptoms over time. As a result, cardiac or respiratory problems may develop as the condition worsens.

Ataxia may be chronic or acute (short-term), and people without any family history of ataxia may develop symptoms. Ataxia may also be a symptom of other conditions such as head injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, or alcoholism.

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