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What is Cerebellar Ataxia?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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Cerebellar ataxia refers to an inability to control certain voluntary muscle movements, such as walking, writing, or speaking. It is usually a symptom of an underlying injury or deficit in the cerebellum, the area of the brain that coordinates motor movements. The loss of motor control associated with cerebellar ataxia can range from mild, infrequent difficulties to chronic tremors and spasms. The condition is most commonly seen in young children who have inherited deficiencies, though illnesses and injuries acquired later in life can also lead to symptoms. Most people who are diagnosed with ataxia need to take medications and participate in physical therapy sessions to help them manage their conditions.

Ataxia can result from any environmental or genetic factor that affects the brain. Severe viral infections, adverse drug reactions, head trauma, and strokes can all lead to cerebellar impairment, as can congenital deformities or inherited disorders, such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Genetic forms of the condition are most commonly noticed in infancy or early childhood, while acquired cerebellar ataxia can occur at any age.

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The type and severity of problems associated with cerebellar ataxia depend on the underlying cause, but most afflicted people experience some degree of difficulty with fine motor movements. A person may be unable to control an object, such as a pen or a fork, or have trouble standing up without swaying from side to side. Some individuals develop speaking and swallowing problems, and they might not be able to control the direction of their vision.

Doctors can usually diagnose ataxia after evaluating symptoms and conducting physical examinations, but additional tests are often needed to confirm cerebellar abnormalities. A neurologist can collect blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples to screen for certain illnesses, autoimmune conditions, and toxins. He or she can also conduct a computerized tomography scan or a magnetic resonance imaging test to look for actual lesions on the cerebellum. After confirming a diagnosis, the doctor can administer a series of movement and memory tests to determine the severity of symptoms.

Treatment for cerebellar ataxia is typically geared toward remedying the underlying cause, if possible. A patient may need to take medications to regulate their immune or nervous system functioning. Most people who are diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia are referred to physical therapists to help them learn how to maintain the maximum levels of mobility and independence possible despite their disabilities. Some patients are given walkers or canes to help prevent falls, while those with more severe issues may be confined to wheelchairs.

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