Ataxia is a neurological sign consisting of lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements. Ataxia is a non-specific clinical manifestation implying dysfunction of the parts of the nervous system that coordinate movement, such as the cerebellum.
The cerebellum coordinates smoothly movements and participates in planning of movements. Cerebellar ataxia affects the force, range, direction, velocity and rhythm of muscle contractions, which results in irregular, uncoordinated jerky movements. The movements affected vary according to which cerebellar structures are involved, and whether the dysfunction is restricted to one hemisphere, or is present in both sides of the cerebellum
The loss of proprioception is caused by dysfunction of the dorsal columns of the spinal cord or dysfunction of the various parts of the brain which receive positional information, including the cerebellum, thalamus, and parietal lobes.
Sensory ataxia presents itself with an unsteady "stomping" gait with heavy heel strikes, as well as a postural instability that is usually worsened when the lack of proprioceptive input cannot be compensated for by visual input, such as in poorly lit environments.
The term vestibular ataxia is employed to indicate ataxia due to dysfunction of the vestibular system, which in acute and unilateral cases is associated with prominent vertigo, nausea and vomiting. In slow-onset, chronic bilateral cases of vestibular dysfunction, these characteristic manifestations may be absent, and dysequilibrium may be the sole presentation.
Causes of Ataxia
Focal Lesions Any type of focal lesion of the central nervous system (such as stroke, brain tumour, multiple sclerosis) will cause the type of ataxia corresponding to the site of the lesion: cerebellar if in the cerebellum, sensory if in the dorsal spinal cord (and rarely in the thalamus or parietal lobe), vestibular if in the vestibular system (including the vestibular areas of the cerebral cortex).
Causes of Isolated Sensory Ataxia
Peripheral neuropathies may cause generalised or localised sensory ataxia (e.g. a limb only) depending on the extent of the neuropathic involvement. Spinal disorders of various types may cause sensory ataxia from the longitudinal level of the lesion and below when they involve the dorsal columns.
Non-Hereditary Cerebellar Degeneration
Non-hereditary causes of cerebellar degeneration include chronic ethanol abuse, paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration, high altitude cerebral oedema, coeliac disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus and cerebellitis.
Ataxia may depend on hereditary disorders consisting of degeneration of the cerebellum and/or of the spine; most cases feature both to some extent, and therefore present with overlapping cerebellar and sensory ataxia, even though one is often more evident than the other. Hereditary disorders causing ataxia include autosomal dominant ones such as spinocerebellar ataxia, episodic ataxia, and dentatorubropallidoluysian atrophy, as well as autosomal recessive disorders such as Friedreich's ataxia (sensory and cerebellar, with the former predominating) and Niemann Pick disease, ataxia-telangiectasia (sensory and cerebellar, with the latter predominating), and abetalipoproteinaemia. An example of X-linked ataxic condition is the rare fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome.
Arnold-Chiari malformation is a malformation of the brain. It consists of a downward displacement of the cerebellar tonsils and the medulla through the foramen magnum, sometimes causing hydrocephalus as a result of obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid outflow.
Wilson's disease is an autosomal-recessive gene disorder whereby an alteration of the ATP7B gene results in an inability to properly excrete copper from the body. Copper accumulates in the nervous system and liver and can cause ataxia as well as other neurological and organ impairments.
Expert preventative healthcare
Dr Paul Masters
Dip Hum Sci (Chiro), LCSP, BSc (Comp Ther), MSc (Chiro), DC
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