Ataxia refers to a lack of order or coordination. In the body, this means an inability to fully control muscle movement. Those affected by ataxia are unable to balance their bodies and have problems with coordination, gait, and actions like sitting, standing, and walking. Ataxia can affect people of all ages and can be traced to several causes, ranging from autoimmune disorders and hereditary gene mutations to even a head injury. Used independently or together, holistic treatments involving Ayurveda, physiotherapy, and even game-playing can help treat the symptoms of ataxia.
Many of us take the process of simply moving our bodies for granted. But even a small motion like moving an arm is a complex process: First, a signal is generated and transmitted from the brain. This signal travels through the spinal cord into the nerves in the arm. These nerves then send a “message” to the arm muscles to move. As you can see, there are several levels at which this signal transmission can fail – and this is what happens in ataxia.
Ataxia refers to a lack of order or coordination. In the body, this means an inability to fully control muscle movement. Those affected by ataxia are unable to balance their bodies and have problems with coordination, gait, and actions like sitting, standing, and walking.
A neurological condition that can affect one or more parts of the nervous system, ataxia has a wide range of symptoms. It can affect the legs, arms, fingers, hands and eyes in people of all ages, and is often linked to hereditary gene mutations, autoimmune disorders, and specific types of injuries. Based on the area of damage, ataxia is classified into three types, each exhibiting slightly different symptoms.
The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls movements. If you’ve ever had one too many shots of whiskey, you know that wobbly feeling that prevents you from walking straight – that’s your cerebellum temporarily inhibited by the alcohol. In ataxia, depending on which part of the cerebellum is affected, symptoms include unsteady gait, loss of control over eye movements, loss of body balance and, in some cases, loss of control over how arms and legs move, even while sitting.1 People suffering from cerebellar ataxia often complain of a fear of falling.
In contrast, sensory ataxia has nothing to do with the cerebellum. Instead, it is caused by the malfunctioning of nerves in the spinal cord. People with this condition often walk with “heavy heels,” stomping their feet on the ground, as they’re unable to gauge the position of their feet against the ground. They also often find it difficult to maintain their posture when their eyes are closed.2
Interestingly, this form has very little to do with the brain or the spinal cord. Vestibular ataxia affects the inbuilt balancing system within the ear and is often due to an infection or some other kind of ear damage. The most commonly seen symptom of this form is vertigo, a disease in which you are unable to find balance in any position.3 People affected by vestibular ataxia often feel like the world is spinning quickly around them.
When Can Ataxia Strike?
Because ataxia is such a diverse neurological condition, its causes and symptoms can vary among different age groups. The most common cause of ataxia in children is a bad fall or concussion, while older people may suffer ataxia because of degenerating nerves.
If a child has suffered a bad fall, it’s important to check with your doctor in order to rule out brain damage. Apart from injuries, ataxia in children can also be caused by an infection of the brain or even a stroke in some cases.4 Any sudden changes in gait must always be reported to a doctor. If muscle tone is not the cause of movement issues, make sure to get your child evaluated for ataxia.5
Healthy adults can develop ataxia as a result of a head injury or a hemorrhage. A form called temporary ataxia can also develop in adults who have had too much to drink, manifesting as a loss of coordination and a bad hangover. It’s also important to note that alcohol in general kills some cells in the cerebellum, so the more you drink, the more serious the ataxia can get.6
In older adults, ataxia is often diagnosed after a particularly bad fall that may happen for no apparent reason. Uncontrolled eye movements, Parkinson’s disease, and hearing loss – symptoms usually associated with old age – often develop simultaneously. Some elderly patients can benefit from surgery depending on the cause of ataxia,7 so it is important to get even minor disruptions in movements checked out by a doctor.
The first step towards any successful treatment is a correct diagnosis, which is why it is so important to see a doctor if you start exhibiting symptoms. A loss of body balance may be quickly perceived by adults, but not by children. Depending on the root cause, a holistic approach can be useful in treating ataxia. In Ayurveda, a treatment called Panchakarma, a five-fold cleansing procedure using massage and herbal oils, has shown to improve symptoms in about two weeks.8 Coordinative training and physiotherapy can help improve symptoms in cases of cerebellar ataxia.9
Since it might be difficult to get children engaged in physiotherapy, there’s another way to alleviate their symptoms – by playing video games! One study found that video games involving whole-body coordination could take the place of coordinative physiotherapy and significantly improve ataxia symptoms.10
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Schmahmann, Jeremy D. “Disorders of the cerebellum: ataxia, dysmetria of thought, and the cerebellar cognitive affective syndrome.” The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences 16, no. 3 (2004): 367-378.|
|2.||↑||Khasnis, A., and R. M. Gokula. “Romberg’s test.” Journal of postgraduate medicine 49, no. 2 (2003): 169.|
|3.||↑||Healy, Gerald B., M. Stuart Strong, and Dominick Sampogna. “Ataxia, vertigo, and hearing loss: A result of rupture of inner ear window.” Archives of Otolaryngology 100, no. 2 (1974): 130-135.|
|4, 5.||↑||Fogel, Brent L. “Childhood cerebellar ataxia.” Journal of child neurology 27, no. 9 (2012): 1138-1145.|
|6.||↑||What is Ataxia? John Hopkins Medicine.|
|7.||↑||Safe, A. F., S. Cooper, and A. C. M. Windsor. “Cerebellar ataxia in the elderly.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 85, no. 8 (1992): 449-451.|
|8.||↑||Sriranjini, S. J., Pramod Kumar Pal, K. V. Devidas, and Selva Ganpathy. “Improvement of balance in progressive degenerative cerebellar ataxias after Ayurvedic therapy: a preliminary report.” Neurology India 57, no. 2 (2009): 166.|
|9.||↑||Ilg, W., M. Synofzik, D. Brötz, S. Burkard, M. A. Giese, and L. Schöls. “Intensive coordinative training improves motor performance in degenerative cerebellar disease.” Neurology 73, no. 22 (2009): 1823-1830.|
|10.||↑||Ilg, Winfried, Cornelia Schatton, Julia Schicks, Martin A. Giese, Ludger Schöls, and Matthis Synofzik. “Video game–based coordinative training improves ataxia in children with degenerative ataxia.” Neurology 79, no. 20 (2012): 2056-2060.|