What is Ataxia? (International Ataxia Awareness Day)

What is Ataxia? (International Ataxia Awareness Day)

The International Ataxia Awareness Day is on the 25th of September each year, with the aim of raising awareness about this rare condition. The Mayo Clinic identifies ataxia as “a lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements.” This lack of muscle control can impact the movement of the arms, legs, neck, head, and the muscles required to swallow, breathe, and create speech. The symptoms of ataxia evolve over time in a progressive manner. 

Symptoms of Ataxia

The symptoms of ataxia can arrive suddenly or develop slowly over time. Depending on the cause and type of ataxia, symptoms can develop and any stage in life. As ataxia is a sign of certain neurological disorders, it is important to be aware of these symptoms:

  • Change in speech, e.g. slurring
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Difficulty walking, unsteady gait
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Poor coordination, resulting in difficulty with fine motor skills, such as eating, buttoning your shirt, or writing.
Experiencing headaches and migraines as a symptom of Ataxia

If you experience any of these systems persistently and aren’t aware of having a condition that causes ataxia (such as muscular sclerosis), then you should consult your doctor.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia can often be a sign of an underlying condition. Persistent ataxia is normally the result of damage to the part of your brain that controls your muscle coordination (the cerebellum).

Ataxia can be caused by hereditary genetic disorders, but it can also be caused by many conditions, including stroke, head trauma, a tumour, cerebral palsy, brain degeneration, alcohol abuse, autoimmune diseases (e.g. multiple sclerosis), certain vitamin deficiencies, toxic reactions, and certain medications.

Ataxia can not be cured, but it can be treated. Treatments vary depending on the cause of the Ataxia. Some adults who develop ataxia never find out the specific cause of their condition.

Types of Hereditary (Inheritable) Ataxia

The first group of hereditary ataxias are Autosomal dominant ataxias. Autosomal dominant ataxias only need one abnormal gene to be passed down from one parent to result in you getting the disease. Each child with a parent who has an autosomal dominant ataxia gene has a 50% chance of inheriting the ataxia gene and developing the disease. The two types of autosomal dominant ataxia are Spinocerebellar Ataxia and Episodic Ataxia

The types of hereditary ataxia

The second group of hereditary ataxias are Autosomal recessive ataxias. Autosomal recessive ataxias need two abnormal genes (one from each parent) to be passed down to result in you getting the disease. Each child of parents who are both carriers of the gene has a 50% chance of becoming a carrier themselves, and a 25% chance of developing the disease. Two types of autosomal recessive ataxia are Friedreich’s ataxia and Ataxia-Telangiectasia.

There are also other ways Ataxia can be inherited. Mitochondrial Ataxias can pass from mother to child through defected mitochondria in the mother’s eggs. 

Types of Acquired Ataxia

Acquired ataxia occurs when someone suddenly develops these symptoms, without a family history of ataxia, as a result of an external cause. The two types of acquired ataxia are Sporadic Ataxia and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). For some people who develop Multiple System Atrophy, they may have first been diagnosed with Sporadic Ataxia before their symptoms progressed. 

How Ataxia Can Impact Everyday Life

There are many ways that the symptoms of ataxia can impact everyday life. Here are some examples: Someone with developing ataxia who is unsure what is happening may feel clumsy and disheartened by their new symptoms. At first, they may alter the way they walk in an attempt to maintain balance as waking starts to become difficult. Previously active people may have to give up certain hobbies, such as sports, due to struggling with mobility. Even moderate exercise can result in fatigue and spasms when you have ataxia. As the ataxia progresses, a mobility aid or walking aid may be employed, and there is a high risk of injury due to falling as a result of lack of balance. Many people with ataxia need help with personal hygiene, eating, and dressing. Along with all these other symptoms, their speech can deteriorate. As it does, this causes communication issues, which will require the assistance of a speech therapist. 

Using a walking aid or mobility aid when experiencing the symptoms of Ataxia.

While there is currently no cure for ataxia, research is looking very promising. There are many ways that those impacted by ataxia, either directly or through a friend or family member, can get involved in fighting ataxia. There are plenty of ataxia awareness events and research trials that can be found on the internet if supporting the search for a cure interest you. For more information on ataxia or International Ataxia Awareness Day, you can visit this webpage by the National Ataxia Foundation: https://ataxia.org/what-is-ataxia/

About The Author

Amy Clements is a 20-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.