Ataxia, commonly called impaired coordination, is a condition wherein a loss of muscle control arises, impeding voluntary motions such as walking and lifting objects. It develops because of various underlying disorders that hamper the cerebellum – the section of the brain that regulates muscle movement. Due to ataxia, muscles in many parts of the body are restricted, thereby leading to inability to speak clearly, swallow food and drink easily, besides undue muscle strain and challenges in eye movements.
Also Read: Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment
While there is no specific treatment for ataxia, the symptoms can be alleviated, and muscle control can be improved with accurate diagnosis and relevant medical care involving physical therapy and speech therapy by doctors. Furthermore, to enable better living standards for the affected patient, assistive gear such as walking sticks or canes are recommended, to help them move with ease and independently monitor their muscular activities.
Causes Of Ataxia:
Ataxia can arise due to injury, infection or other chronic ailments that obstruct the functioning of the cerebellum in the brain, thereby leading to a decline in muscle coordination. Based on the causes of ataxia, doctors categorize the condition into three main types:
Genetic Ataxia: When either one parent or both parents have defective genes that are passed on to the child, it presents with genetic abnormalities that produce aberrant proteins which deteriorate the operations of the cerebellum in the brain. This is termed genetic ataxia or hereditary ataxia.
Acquired Ataxia: This form of ataxia emerges in the person owing to external attributes that injure the cerebellum, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves - which link the brain to the muscles. These include lung cancer, breast cancer and lymphoma, vitamin B12 and vitamin B1 deficiencies, infections in the brain, trauma to the head, stroke, toxic effects of strong medications, thyroid problems and even severe cases of COVID-19.
Idiopathic Ataxia: When the precise cause of ataxia cannot be determined, the malady is classified as idiopathic ataxia.
Also Read: Stroke/Cerebrovascular Accident: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment
The distinct symptoms of ataxia can happen all of a sudden or become more intense over a period of time. People with ataxia display numerous signs, such as:
- Walking in an odd manner, appearing clumsy
- Reduced coordination while moving the arms, legs, eyes and lips
- Lack of balance while walking, with a high risk of falling or getting hurting
- Loss of fine motor skills, like in activities of eating, writing, putting on clothes
- Rapid eye motions that occur randomly, with vision difficulties
- Speech that is incoherent and slurred
- Incapability to swallow food properly i.e. dysphagia
- Muscle tremors
- Impaired function of cardiac muscles leading to heart issues
To identify the cause of ataxia, doctors conduct a thorough physical examination to gauge the patient’s level of muscle control and also enquire about their medical and family history, to see if any underlying illnesses or genetic factors could be the reason for impaired coordination.
Furthermore, a series of diagnostic tests are carried out, to detect the cause and severity of ataxia, comprising:
- Imaging analyses of MRI scans and CT scans, which project clear images of the cross-sections of the brain, that display faults including blood clots, compressed cerebellum, or benign tumours in the brain
- Blood tests, to investigate if any pathogenic microbes are present in the body that induce infections, or inflammatory components that signify stroke/tumours
- Genetic testing, which spots if the genetic mutation hampering muscle control has been passed on from the parents to the child, giving rise to ataxia
Once the diagnosis of ataxia is confirmed and the cause has been identified, doctors aim to mitigate the symptoms and help improve mobility in the patient. Although there is no particular treatment method for ataxia, prescription medications are given to pacify tremors and dizziness. The physician also recommends taking medicines to reduce muscle movement complications from ataxia that affect the heart and eyes.
The medical professional advises the patient to undergo physical therapy sessions, which entails exercises to promote balance and coordinated muscle motions. Assistive apparatuses of canes, walking sticks or wheelchairs are recommended for the patient with ataxia, to move independently and carry out routine day-to-day activities by themselves. Speech therapy sessions are also recommended by the healthcare provider, to aid the patient with ataxia in improving the clarity of uttering words and sentences while talking and communicating with others.
In this manner, people with ataxia can attain significantly better living standards, cope with their persistent symptoms of hampered muscle coordination and perform basic muscular functions with ease.