Ataxia

If you have ataxia, its symptoms — such as slurred speech and loss of coordination — can cause worries. At Henry Ford Health, our movement disorders team offers evaluation and treatment to help you improve your quality of life.

What is ataxia?

Ataxia describes a group of neurological or nervous system disorders that cause loss of muscle control and coordination. Ataxia can cause difficulty with various voluntary movements, such as walking, eye movement, speaking and swallowing.

Ataxia symptoms

The signs and symptoms of ataxia vary depending on the type. Some symptoms and signs that are common to all include:

  • Worsening coordination
  • Unsteady walk, often leading to frequent stumbles or falls
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks, such as writing or buttoning clothes
  • Changes in speech, such as slurring
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Difficulty swallowing or eating
  • Muscle contractions (dystonia) or tremors

Some well-known types of inherited ataxia have specific symptoms:

  • Ataxia telangiectasia: This type affects the immune system, increasing the risk of cancer and infections. Ataxia telangiectasia often causes tiny red spider veins in the eyes and on the face.
  • Friedreich’s ataxia: Additional symptoms include muscle weakness, scoliosis (spine curvature), hearing loss and heart disease.

Ataxia causes

Ataxia results from damage to or loss of nerve cells in the cerebellum, the part of your brain that controls muscle coordination. The cerebellum controls balance, eye movements, swallowing and speech, among many other movements.

The three categories of ataxia are:

  • Inherited: Some types of ataxia result from mutations (changes) in certain genes that your parents pass on to you.
  • Acquired: Nerve damage from other health conditions, injuries, infections and other factors can cause ataxia.
  • Idiopathic: In some cases, doctors cannot pinpoint a specific cause of the ataxia.

Ataxia care at Henry Ford: Why choose us?

As with many movement disorders, diagnosing ataxia can be difficult because there are so many types. Our neurologists (specialists in conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord and nerves) are experts in distinguishing among symptoms to determine the underlying causes.

Highlights of our program include:

  • Thorough evaluation: Ataxia has dozens of types, with symptoms that often resemble those of other conditions. Our specialists do a thorough evaluation, with an extensive physical exam, to confirm an accurate diagnosis. Our detailed process helps ensure that you receive the right treatments.
  • Comprehensive treatment options: We provide a complete range of treatments and services to help relieve the symptoms of all types of ataxia.

Ataxia evaluation

Ataxia’s signs and symptoms mimic those of other conditions, and no specific test can confirm the disorder. It’s important to see a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders for an accurate diagnosis, so you can get the right treatment.

In our thorough evaluation, we begin with a physical exam and ask you about symptoms and your personal and family medical history. We do a neurologic exam to evaluate nerve function, memory, concentration, balance, reflexes and other factors.

Other tests can help us rule out other conditions and confirm a diagnosis. You may need one or more tests, such as:

  • Lab tests: We test small samples of your blood or urine to check for signs of infection, thyroid disease or other possible causes.
  • Imaging studies: We may take magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans of the brain. Imaging can show signs of damage or other causes, such as a brain tumor or blood clot.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): Using a needle, we take a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. We test the fluid for signs of infection or other problems.
  • Genetic testing: Depending on your family medical history, we may recommend genetic testing to look for known ataxia-related mutations.

Find out more about movement disorder evaluation and treatment at Henry Ford.

Ataxia treatment

For acquired ataxias, we treat the underlying cause, when possible, to relieve symptoms. Although inherited ataxias have no cure, treatments can help minimize symptoms.

Depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing, you may get relief from more than one type of treatment:

  • Medications: A variety of medications can treat nerve pain, muscle cramps, tremors, depression and other symptoms.
  • Botox® injections: We can inject botulinum toxin, or Botox, into areas with muscle contractions or tremors to help relax the muscles. Learn more about Botox for neuromuscular disorders.
  • Assistive devices: Braces and splints provide support during walking and other activities. We can recommend the right devices, such as walkers, wheelchairs and canes, to meet your needs.
  • Rehabilitation therapies: Our physical therapists teach you exercises to improve muscle strength, coordination and mobility. Our occupational therapists show you how to use assistive devices such as wheelchairs or walkers and specialized utensils for eating and drinking. Our speech-language pathologists provide techniques and communication aids to improve speaking and swallowing. Learn more about our neurological rehabilitation.
  • Integrative medicine therapies: Acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, tai chi, yoga and other therapies can help you manage stress and relax your muscles. With biofeedback, you learn to control muscle tension and other body functions, which can help control muscle movements. Find out what we offer at the Center for Integrative Medicine.

Learn more about our nonsurgical therapies for movement disorders.


Make an appointment

Let us help you schedule an appointment, call (800) 436-7936.

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