What Are the Different Causes of Ataxia?

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  • Written By: Amy Hunter
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 12 January 2020
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The causes of ataxia are genetics, disease, trauma, and toxic reactions. In approximately one-third of cases it is impossible to determine the cause of the condition. Any damage to the cerebellum can cause ataxia. Damage to the connections along the brain and spinal cord also lead to ataxia.

Ataxia is a condition where the brain is unable to coordinate movements. It can be a mild, chronic condition, or a progressive disease that results in death. Patients suffering from ataxia have trouble walking, swallowing, and performing fine motor skills. Like the causes of ataxia, the extent of the disability varies from person to person.

Health conditions are some of the most common causes of ataxia. A stroke, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and tumors may all damage the cerebellum, leading to ataxia. Even a mild stroke, known as a TIA, can result in ataxia. In some cases, individuals suffering from chicken pox may develop a temporary form of ataxia that goes away on its own.

Another condition that may trigger ataxia is paraneoplastic syndrome. This is one of the less common causes of ataxia. It is a degenerative condition that develops when the body's own immune system responds to a cancerous tumor in the body. The ataxia can develop months to years before the cancer is diagnosed.


Accidents that cause brain trauma can lead to temporary or permanent ataxia, depending on the type and severity of the injury. Some individuals may develop ataxia in response to certain medications, such as phenobarbital, exposure to heavy metals or solvents, or as a result of long term drug or alcohol exposure. These causes of ataxia can result in temporary or permanent disability.

Hereditary causes for ataxia are the result of a defect in a gene. This causes the gene to make abnormal proteins. The affected proteins interfere with the nerve cells' abilities to function. Without the ability to properly function, the nerve cells eventually degenerate. Cases of ataxia where the cause cannot be pinpointed are called sporadic degenerative ataxia.

Treatment for ataxia includes physical and occupational therapy to help with daily living tasks and to build strength, as well as speech therapy to improve swallowing ability and communications skills. Adaptive devices, such as walkers, and communication aids help improve quality of life for individuals suffering from ataxia. The exact treatment for each individual with ataxia depends on how the disease is affecting the body and the severity of the condition.


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