Symptoms and Causes | Tampa General Hospital


Causing a lack of muscle control in the arms and legs, ataxia may affect a patient’s balance and coordination. 

Ataxia is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. It involves a lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements. Ataxia can also create difficulties with speech, eye movement and swallowing.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia is a result of damage, degeneration or loss of nerve cells in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination. This can be caused by:

  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Infections 
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes 
  • Abnormalities in the brain
  • Toxic reaction to certain medications
  • Vitamin E, vitamin B-12 or thiamine deficiency
  • Thyroid problems

Additionally, some types of ataxia or conditions that cause ataxia are hereditary. For some adults with sporadic ataxia, no specific cause can be found.

Symptoms of Ataxia

Ataxia can develop over time or come on suddenly. Because ataxia can be a sign of a number of neurological disorders, it can present various symptoms such as:

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

Diagnosis of Ataxia

If you believe you have ataxia, your doctor will look for a treatable cause and conduct physical and neurological exams. They will also check your memory and concentration, vision, hearing, balance, coordination and reflexes. After these exams, your doctor might request certain laboratory tests, including:

  • Imaging studies
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  • Genetic testing

Treatments for Ataxia

There is currently no specific treatment for ataxia. In some cases, treating the underlying cause resolves the ataxia, such as stopping the medications that cause it. In other cases, such as ataxia that results from chickenpox or other viral infections, it's likely to resolve on its own. Symptoms can be managed with treatment options like speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. These methods are sometimes used in conjunction with medications.