A Guide To Ataxia

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What is Ataxia?

Ataxia is a condition characterized by impaired coordination. The impairment interferes with a person’s voluntary movements, including walking and picking things up. It can affect much of the body, including the arms, legs, hands, fingers, eye movement, and ability to speak.

Most people with ataxia have a lack of balance and coordination affecting many parts of the body. It may be difficult for them to stand and walk. This often leads to a noticeable change in the gait, or pattern of walking, that can cause musculoskeletal pain over time. Currently there is no cure for Ataxia, but clinical trials are ongoing.

What Causes Ataxia?

Ataxia can have many different sources. It usually arises from neurological damage caused by a chronic health condition. Some people inherit ataxia from their parents. These cases are known as hereditary ataxia. However, most people develop ataxia later in life, called sporadic ataxia.

Ataxia can usually be traced back to damage to specific cells in the brain. Specifically, cells in the cerebellum, at the back of the head, get smaller or die. These cells are responsible for helping to coordinate voluntary movement and maintain equilibrium while the body is in motion.

Some conditions associated with sporadic ataxia include stroke, multiple sclerosis, and tumors. Peripheral neuropathy – nerve damage – some metabolic disorders, and vitamin deficiencies may also be involved. For most people, the biggest lifestyle risk factor is long-term alcoholism.

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How is Ataxia Diagnosed?

Genetic testing can determine if someone has hereditary ataxia. When ataxia is inherited on a set of recessive genes, it has a tendency to produce symptoms in childhood. Genetic testing should always be part of the treatment process for children who may be suffering ataxia.

Diagnosis of sporadic ataxia may require more tools and testing. A complete lab workup of the patient’s blood and urine should be done. An MRI scan, which uses radiofrequency energy to produce images of the body’s soft tissues, can evaluate damage to the brain.

During the diagnostic process, the medical team also rules out conditions that can contribute to ataxia: Head trauma, stroke, infection, tumors, drug exposure, and others can be detected during this time. This helps the doctor decide on the most effective course of treatment.

How is Ataxia Treated or Cured?

There is no cure for hereditary ataxia. Those who develop it are likely to have symptoms for life. However, there is cutting-edge research taking place around the world with several on-going clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with many more being planned for the near future.

Sporadic ataxia caused by stroke, vitamin deficiency, or drug exposure are very responsive to treatment with medication. Likewise, ataxia caused by alcoholism can be controlled, and the sufferer protected against additional damage, by discontinuing alcohol use.

When ataxia is related to other conditions, like stroke, then an appropriate course of long-term care including physical therapy can help patients manage ongoing symptoms and maximize their independence. Care must be customized to the individual’s needs.

There is no cure for ataxia, but sufferers can live a full life no matter when they are diagnosed.

Ataxia Clinical Trials

The following list of clinical trials are the most up to date Ataxia clinical trials provided by clinicaltrials.gov.

Lifestyle Changes and Friends and Family

Adaptive devices are a crucial part of helping ataxia patients manage symptoms successfully. Based on their needs, they may use a cane, crutches, walker, or wheelchair. Sometimes, they may feel more comfortable with one device or another.

Friends and family should be mindful of a person’s condition. No one wants to be left out of activities because of ataxia. However, it may be necessary to slow walking pace. Avoid using stairs when possible. If speech is affected, listen carefully and do not talk over the person. Ask questions that let you understand the symptoms and when a change is needed.

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