Ataxia

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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What are the signs and symptoms of ataxia?

The symptoms of ataxia will depend upon what part of the brain or body is affected. Common symptoms all involve lack of coordination:

  • Difficulty walking with an unsteady gait, which is often wide-based and staggering. This can lead to stumbling and falling.
  • Speech may be slurred and slow with an unusual rhythm to the words.
  • Swallowing may be difficult and the patient may choke, especially when drinking liquids.
  • Difficulty using the hands and fingers to button shirts, or pick up a fork or spoon to eat. Writing, keyboarding, sewing, and playing an instrument can be affected.
  • Nystagmus is the term used to describe rapid involuntary eye movements where the eyes jerk back and forth. This can cause blurred vision and difficulty reading or moving the eyes from one word to the next.
  • Fatigue is a common complaint, likely because the muscles of the body have to work harder to overcome the lack of coordination to perform their daily activities.

How is ataxia diagnosed?

History and physical examination are necessary for the clinical diagnosis of the disease process that results in ataxia. Questions may be asked about exposures to chemicals and other toxins. History may include delving into the family history asking about relatives who might have neurologic problems. The neurologic exam will be focused upon looking for muscle weakness and changes in sensation.

Laboratory tests (blood, urine, lumbar puncture) may look for electrolyte and chemical abnormalities and may screen for toxins and other poisons. CT scan or MRI of the brain and spinal cord may be required. Nerve conduction studies may be appropriate if there is concern for peripheral neuropathy (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). If there is a potential for a familial or genetic cause, genetic testing may be appropriate.

There are many potential causes for ataxia and it may take time for a definitive diagnosis to be made. The primary health care professional may ask for consultation from an internal medicine specialist or neurologist to help identify the definitive diagnosis or underlying cause of the ataxia.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/6/2015

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