What is an Ataxia

Ataxia is a condition that results in unsteadiness when walking and standing, poor coordination of body movements, and difficulty maintaining an upright posture. It occurs due to a problem with the part of your brain that controls coordination and stability (cerebellar dysfunction).


Ataxia can develop later in life (acquired ataxia) during your 20s to 30s, and even as late as into your 60s or beyond. Acquired ataxia may be caused by:

  • Changes in your nervous system (neurodegenerative).
  • Changes throughout your body (systemic disorders).
  • Excess exposure to:
  • Medicines, such as phenytoin and lithium.
  • Solvents.
  • Abuse of alcohol (alcoholism).
  • Medical conditions, such as:
  • Celiac sprue.
  • Hypothyroidism.
  • Vitamin E deficiency.
  • Structural brain abnormalities, such as tumors.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Stroke.
  • Head injury.

Ataxia may also be present early in life (non-acquired ataxia). There are two main types of non-acquired ataxia:

  • Cerebellar dysfunction present at birth (congenital).
  • Family inheritance (genetic heredity). Friedreich ataxia is the most common form of hereditary ataxia.


The signs and symptoms of ataxia can vary depending on how severe the condition is that causes it. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Unsteadiness.
  • Walking with a wide stance.
  • Tremor.
  • Poorly coordinated body movements.
  • Difficulty maintaining a straight (upright) posture.
  • Fatigue.
  • Changes in your speech.
  • Changes in your vision.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Difficulty with writing.
  • Decreased mental status (dementia).
  • Muscle spasms.


Ataxia is diagnosed by discussing your personal and family history and through a physical exam. You may also have additional tests such as:

  • MRI.
  • Genetic testing.


Treatment for ataxia may include treating or removing the underlying condition causing the ataxia. Surgery may be required if a structural abnormality in your brain is causing the ataxia. Otherwise, supportive treatments may be used to manage your symptoms.


Monitor your ataxia for any changes. The following actions may help any discomfort you are experiencing:

  • Do notdrink alcohol.
  • Lie down right away if you become very unsteady, dizzy, nauseated, or feel like you are going to faint. Wait until all of these feelings pass before you get up again.


  • Your unsteadiness suddenly worsens.
  • You develop severe headaches, chest pain, or abdominal pain.  
  • You have weakness or numbness on one side of your body.  
  • You have problems with your vision.  
  • You feel confused.  
  • You have difficulty speaking.  
  • You have an irregular heartbeat or a very fast pulse.  

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