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About Ataxia

Ataxia is a condition in which people lose control of the muscles in their arms and legs, and develop an uncoordinated gait, lack of balance, involuntary eye movements, speech problems, and an inability to maintain normal postures and perform normal movements. Depending on its cause, ataxia may be accompanied by other neurologic symptoms such as dementia, seizures, myoclonus, dystonia, and parkinsonism.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia is usually caused by dysfunction of the cerebellum, the region of the brain where sensory perception, motor control, and voluntary movement are all integrated. Many people develop ataxia as the main symptom of more than two dozen inherited disorders, among them Friedreich's ataxia, spinocerebellar ataxias including Machado-Joseph disease, episodic ataxia, and fragile X tremor/ataxia syndrome. Ataxia can also develop as a result of stroke, multiple sclerosis, tumors, alcoholism, peripheral neuropathy, metabolic disorders, and vitamin deficiencies.

Diagnosis of Ataxia

Many hereditary ataxias can be identified with genetic testing. Neurologists at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital offer testing to help confirm a diagnosis or to determine if someone has inherited an ataxia gene known to affect other family members. We also offer comprehensive genetic counseling for individuals with a family history of ataxia.

Neurologists at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital's two movement disorders centers, Columbia's Center for Parkinson's Disease and Other Movement Disorders and Weill Cornell's Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Institute, are expert at accurately diagnosing ataxia and helping patients and their families manage complications of the disorder.

Treatment for Ataxia

Treatment for ataxia starts with determining the underlying cause of the symptoms, and treating it if possible. If ataxia is caused by a metabolic disorder, doctors will treat that disorder with specific medications and a controlled diet. They will treat a vitamin deficiency with vitamin therapy. Other treatments for ataxia are directed toward relieving the symptoms, and may include medications currently used to treat tremor, anxiety, and gait and swallowing disorders.

Rehabilitation for Ataxia

Physical, occupational, speech, and nutrition therapy all help patients with ataxia maintain function. Rehabilitation experts at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital will:

  • Evaluate muscle strength and motor skills and develop an individualized program to maintain existing motor function.
  • Recommend devices including neck supports, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs; devices to assist with writing, eating and self-care; communication devices for those with impaired speech.
  • Discuss ways to modify activities, conserve energy, and simplify work.
  • Provide voice exercises to help with speech.
  • Recommend ways to avoid complications related to difficulties swallowing.

Research for Ataxia

Researchers at Columbia's Center for Parkinson's Disease and Other Movement Disorders and Weill Cornell's Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Institute are conducting studies to find the causes of ataxia, treating them, and improving care and management.

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