What is Ataxia?

What is Ataxia

Ataxia describes a lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements, such as walking. Ataxia can affect various movements and create difficulties with speech, eye movement and swallowing.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia usually results from damage to the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination, also known as the cerebellum. Many conditions cause ataxia including alcohol misuse, stroke, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and ALS commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In addition, there are forms of ataxia that are inherited or genetic or passed through a family.

Classification of Ataxia

Acquired is from an underlying cause for example from stroke or traumatic brain injury

Genetic is inherited through your mother or father. Other types aren’t as easily noticeable in a family and could skip many generations or require both your mother and father to be a carrier.

Genetic is sub classified as recessive and dominant.

  • Recessive –  means it takes both parents to pass on the gene responsible.
  • Dominant –  means that it only takes one parent to pass on the gene responsible.

Idiopathic and Unknown – ataxia symptoms but with no definite cause that can be found at this time.

  • Unsteady walk and a tendency to stumble
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks, such as eating, writing or buttoning a shirt
  • Change in speech (dysarthria)
  • Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Difficulty swallowing


Depends on the cause. Adaptive devices, such as walkers or canes, might help you maintain independence. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and exercise also might help.

Cognition & Emotion in Ataxia

The part of the brain controlling movement, the cerebellum, has a part that also controls thought, reasoning, motivation, memory and feelings. Damage to this area can lead to difficulties in intellectual function and changes in mood and personality. These difficulties are not the fault of the affected individual. It is useful to know that the stress of chronic illness and the social changes that result may place additional burdens on patients and families.

Living and Coping with Ataxia