Ataxia is a formal diagnosis of an inherited, progressive, neurological disease that is characterized by damage to the part of the brain called the cerebellum. The term is also used to describe a symptom of an acquired illness or injury. In all cases, people with Ataxia have difficulty with coordination of voluntary movement.

Examples and Symptoms:*

  • Unbalanced gait, difficulty walking and a tendency to stumble
  • Incoordination in hands and fingers – difficulty with fine motor tasks, such as eating, writing or buttoning a shirt
  • Slurred speech (dysarthria) or change in speech
  • Slower eye movement or Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Difficulty swallowing

*Severity varies from person to person with more extreme forms causing difficulty swallowing and respiratory problems. Many people become unable to walk, and require the use of a wheelchair.

Causes of Ataxia

Ataxia usually results from damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination. Many conditions cause ataxia including alcohol misuse, stroke, or other neurological diseases, such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease and ALS commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In addition, there are forms of ataxia that are inherited or genetic or passed through a family.

Classification of Ataxia

Acquired is from an underlying cause for example from stroke or traumatic brain injury

Genetic is inherited through your mother or father. Other types aren’t as easily noticeable in a family and could skip many generations or require both your mother and father to be a carrier. Genetic Ataxia is sub-classified as recessive and dominant.

  • Recessive – means it takes both parents to pass on the gene responsible.
  • Dominant – means that it only takes one parent to pass on the gene responsible.
  • Idiopathic and Unknown – ataxia symptoms but with no definite cause that can be found at this time.


Depends on the cause. Adaptive devices, such as walkers or canes, might help you maintain independence. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, mental health therapy and exercise also may help.

Cognition & Emotion in Ataxia

The part of the brain controlling movement, the cerebellum, has a part that also controls thought, reasoning, motivation, memory and feelings. Damage to this area can lead to difficulties in intellectual function and changes in mood and personality. These difficulties are not the fault of the affected individual. It is useful to know that the stress of chronic illness and the social changes that result may place additional burdens on patients and families.

While the diverse and varied effects of ataxia can be managed through a variety of interventions, medical research has yet to discover a cure.