Ataxia is a condition that causes a loss of physical co-ordination. It is usually caused by damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum, but it may also result from damage to other parts of the nervous system.
The symptoms of ataxia can affect every part of the body and cause difficulties with:
- swallowing (dysphagia)
- performing tasks that require a high degree of physical control, such as writing and eating
Read more about the symptoms of ataxia.
Types of ataxia
There are currently more than 50 recorded types of ataxia and some experts believe the true figure could be more than 100, each with its own specific cause.
In general terms there are three main broad categories of ataxia:
- acquired ataxia - where the symptoms develop suddenly as a result of trauma, injury or a health condition, such as a stroke, that causes damage to the cerebellum or nervous system
- hereditary ataxia - where the symptoms develop slowly over many years and are caused by underlying problems with the genes that a person inherits from their parents
- idiopathic late onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOA) - where the cerebellum is progressively damaged over time for reasons that are still unclear
Read more about the possible causes of ataxia.
There is currently no cure for ataxia. In some cases of acquired ataxia it is sometimes possible to relieve symptoms by treating the underlying cause. For example, in cases of vitamin deficiency, replacing the deficient vitamins may improve symptoms.
For hereditary ataxia and ILOA, symptoms get worse over time and treatment involves helping a person cope better with the day-to-day problems that they cause. This might be providing a wheelchair to help a person cope with walking difficulties, or speech and language therapy to help with slurred speech and swallowing difficulties.
Read more about treating ataxia.
Who is affected by ataxia?
Acquired ataxia is a relatively common complication of conditions such as stroke, encephalitis (infection of the brain) and multiple sclerosis (MS). It can develop in people of any age, including children.
Hereditary ataxia is much rarer. The most common type is Friedreich's ataxia, which accounts for half of all cases of hereditary ataxia (an estimated 1 in every 50,000 people in England) a year. Some types of hereditary ataxia first develop in childhood, while others can develop in early adulthood or middle age.
ILOA is also rare, although slightly more common than hereditary ataxia. Cases of ILOA usually first develop in middle-aged adults.
The outlook for ataxia will depend on the underlying cause, and life expectancy varies hugely. For example, some people with Friedreich's ataxia die in their thirties, while people with less severe ataxia can have a normal life expectancy.
If you have ataxia that is caused by a condition such as multiple sclerosis, you may experience repeated episodes of ataxia, whereas the symptoms of hereditary ataxia and ILOA will become progressively worse.