Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and found yourself slurring a word or two together? How about standing up and losing your balance or feeling disoriented, has this ever happened to you?
Both are incredibly common occurrences that happen to more people than you might think, but there are individuals out there who experience these situations and more on a daily basis due to a condition called Ataxia.
This complex condition has a multitude of causes, forms, and symptoms that make it difficult to treat. If you or someone you know may be developing this condition, then this is everything you need to know.
What is Ataxia?
The part of your brain that controls muscle coordination is called the cerebellum. This is what allows you to from speak fluently to swallow your food and even move your eyes. Ataxia is a term used to describe the loss of muscle control and coordination.
An ataxic may have difficulty walking, picking up objects, or performing other tasks that involve voluntary movements. This is often caused by damage to the cerebellum and can be a debilitating condition.
There are multiple conditions that may cause a person to develop atax in the brain, including but not limited to:
- Alcohol abuse
- Reaction to certain medications
- Suffering a stroke
- Developing a brain tumor
- Cerebral Palsy
- Brain degeneration
- Multiple Sclerosis
Since Ataxia covers a large range of causes and symptoms, treatments must vary from case to case. Some may be able to adapt with the help of a cane while others must undergo physical therapy to help control this condition to the best of their ability.
What Are the Symptoms?
Ataxia is often a sign that other neurological disorders are at play. Symptoms can develop over time or happen suddenly. Common symptoms include:
- Lack of coordination
- A tendency to stumble when walking, or uneasy footing
- Difficulty with chewing, buttoning a shirt, or other fine motor skills
- A sudden change in speech
- Involuntary eye movements
- Trouble swallowing liquids and foods
Keep in mind that these symptoms do not come and go but persist and become worse with time. It is essential to visit your doctor if you find yourself constantly losing your balance, slurring your speech, or loosing muscle coordination in your limbs. This is called Ataxic Gait and can lead to serious injury.
Noticeable changes in your speech are also a strong indicator of this disease. Someone with Ataxic Dysarthria may suddenly become monotone, slur their speech, and begin speaking at a slower rate with long pauses due to the loss of control in the jaw and tongue.
Types of Ataxia
Ataxia is somewhat of a broad term used to describe ataxic conditions. These can be Cerebellar, Sensory, and Vestibular. There is also a category of genetic ataxia. They may experience changes in behavior or personality, fatigue, and any symptoms related to motor function.
This is when the cerebellum becomes ataxic and is the most common kind. A person with Cerebellar Ataxia will lose balance and coordination as the cerebellum wears away.
When the nerves in the spinal cord or the peripheral nerves are damaged, this is known as Sensory Ataxia. It causes nerve damage, often leading to a lack of feeling in the legs and feet. Individuals may no longer be able to sense vibrations, have more difficulty touching their face, or walk with a heavy step as if stomping.
This form of ataxia affects the vestibular system, which is made up of the inner ear and ear canal. This area of your body is designed to aid you with balance and orientation. When the nerves in this area degenerate, it causes a number of problems.
Those with Vestibular Ataxia may experience blurred vision, difficulty standing up or sitting down, and staggering when walking. In more serious cases, it may cause Vertigo.
There are multiple genetic ataxic conditions. These include:
- Oculomotor Apraxia
- Dominant spastic
- Recessive spastic
- Dominant spinocerebellar (SCA)
- Wilson’s Disease
What Causes Ataxia?
This condition affects the cerebellum, often the result of damage or degeneration to this portion of the brain. The causes of this damage are often diseases that have a negative impact on the spinal cord or peripheral nerves that connect your cerebellum to the rest of your muscles.
Head trauma can cause both brain and spinal cord injury, causing symptoms to develop suddenly. Strokes have much the same affect but do so through limiting blood supply to the cerebellum.
Cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders that cause damage to a child’s brain in early development. Each of these can bring about ataxic symptoms, causing a condition known as Ataxic Cerebral Palsy. Autoimmune diseases such as sclerosis, celiac disease and sarcoidosis may also cause this disorder.
Tumors, whether malignant or benign, can cause damage to the cerebellum from their growth. At the same time, your body’s immune system may respond to a tumor in what is referred to as Paraneoplastic syndrome. This is when your immune system triggers a degenerative process to the affected organs.
Chickenpox and other viral infection can result in ataxic conditions, though these are highly uncommon. Symptoms only last a short time on average, going away as the virus is eliminated from the body.
Ataxia can also be caused by a toxic reaction to barbiturate medications ranging from sedatives to chemotherapy. Some may start by experiencing mild symptoms due to their body’s changing reaction to medications over time.
Alcohol and drug abuse have been known to cause ataxic symptoms, as can heavy metal poising from toxins like mercury or paint thinner. In both these and cases of toxic reactions to medicine, the effects are often irreversible.
A deficiency in Vitamin E, Vitamin B-12, or Thiamine may also lead to ataxia over time. Deficiencies can occur from the body’s inability to properly absorb these nutrients, or a diet change in which you are not getting the vitamins you need.
When Ataxia is passed from parents to their children, it can be done so through both dominant and recessive genes. While you may not display any symptoms, you could still carry a certain defective gene that creates abnormal proteins.
These proteins inhibit the function of nerve cells in your spinal cord and cerebellum, causing them to degenerate. Should this process continue, symptoms will develop and worsen over time.
While a person may carry these defective genes, it does not mean that they have ataxia. However, they can still pass these genes along to their children, who then have a chance to develop this disorder.
How to Tell If You Have Ataxia
You can find out if you have this condition or carry the gene by undergoing a few tests with your doctor’s approval. Imaging scans such as a CT or MRI of your brain can often determine potential causes of ataxic symptoms.
A spinal tap may be necessary if nothing shows up on a scan. This is also how a doctor would determine if your carry the defective genes associated with hereditary ataxia. Alternatively, a doctor may wish for you to undergo genetic testing, which can identify a majority of hereditary causes.
Is There A Cure?
Unfortunately, no. There is no specific treatment to cure ataxia once it has begun. Although, some cases may be resolved by treating the underlying causes.
Some are able to simply stop the medication that caused symptoms, while others will see the condition lessen as they overcome a virus. Most cases, however, are permanent. Doctors can prescribe treatments to lessen any pain, dizziness or fatigue, but can do little else.
Adaptive devices often help those with the condition by helping to keep their footing or speak more clearly. These devices range from walking sticks to modified utensils for eating and communication aids for speaking.
Multiple therapies can help lessen the effects of the symptoms as well, including:
- Physical therapy or chiropractic for coordination and mobility
- Occupational therapy for daily tasks
- Speech therapy for aid in both speaking and swallowing
Living with Ataxia
Every day will bring with it new challenges whether you or a family member has developed this condition. Individuals need help getting around at times, rely on others for rides in some cases, and might even need help eating.
Aside from visiting the doctor, it is highly advised to seek the help of a counselor, therapist, or support group. All three can help to encourage someone while making it easier to understand ataxic conditions and the help available.
Groups are an excellent way to hear about new treatments and how others have been affected by them, either positively or negatively. This is also a great place to make friends with others who understand what living with Ataxia is like.
While this condition isn’t something anyone would want to develop, there are ways to lessen its impact and receive help in dealing with the symptoms. If you or someone you know may be developing ataxic symptoms, talk with a doctor immediately.