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Ataxia

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The multidisciplinary ataxia team at Houston Methodist evaluates and treats all types of this movement disorder to maximize the quality of our patients' lives.

Houston Methodist’s ataxia experts take a comprehensive team approach to treatment, derived from the latest scientific findings. Our specialists partner with you to curate treatment options that effectively reduce the symptoms of this complex condition.

Ataxia occurs after cells in the cerebellum are damaged or destroyed — each patient responds differently to these deficits, and each treatment plan must be customized. Our team evaluates and treats the physical, neurological and emotional aspects of ataxia to maximize the quality of our patients' lives.

Expertise in All Types of Ataxias

This condition reduces coordination, balance, vision and speech. The symptoms and time of onset of ataxia vary according to the underlying cause of the disease and type of ataxia you have.

Sporadic ataxia may appear in a number of forms, including multiple system atrophy. With this unexplained form of ataxia, it appears without a verifiable cause and no other person in the individual’s family has had it.

Acquired ataxia occurs when your brain or spinal cord are damaged due to injury or illness. Causes of acquired ataxia can include:

 

  • Brain tumors
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chickenpox virus
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes 
  • Reactions to heavy metals, solvents, barbiturates, sedatives, alcohol or illicit drugs 
  • Stroke 
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Vitamin E or B-12 deficiency

 

Hereditary ataxia occurs when you inherit either a dominant gene variant from one parent (autosomal dominant ataxia) or a pair of recessive gene variants from both parents (autosomal recessive ataxia).

 

  • Autosomal dominant types include:
    • Spinocerebellar ataxia, a progressive degenerative condition that may be caused by 1 of 20 identified genes. Symptoms and age of onset differ depending on which gene is mutated.
    • Episodic ataxia, in which episodes are triggered by stress or sudden movements. There are seven versions of episodic ataxia, labeled EA1 – EA7. Some forms resolve on their own, and symptoms may respond to medication.

 

  • Autosomal recessive types include:
    • Friedreich's ataxia
    • Ataxia-telangiectasia, which is rare and appears in childhood
    • Congenital cerebellar ataxia, which is damage to the cerebellum at birth 
    • Wilson disease – caused by the accumulation of copper in the brain, liver and other organs 
 

Diagnosing & Treating Ataxia

How is ataxia diagnosed?

Our team of highly skilled specialists will closely evaluate your medical and family history and perform a neurological examination that consists of checking your memory, concentration, vision, hearing, balance, coordination and reflexes. Our team may recommend various tests, including an MRI scan and blood tests, to discover or rule out other possible disorders that may present similar symptoms. 

Genetic blood tests are now available for some types of hereditary ataxia to confirm a diagnosis or as a predictive test to determine if someone has inherited an ataxia gene known to affect other family members.

What treatment options are available?

Your treatment strategy will vary depending on your conditions and underlying causes, which is why our team of experts thoroughly takes its time to analyze your condition and listen to you and your family.  

There is no fixed treatment for ataxia, but it may be curable by treating the underlying condition. For example, ataxia caused by a metabolic disorder may be treated with medications and a controlled diet; ataxia due to vitamin deficiency is treated with vitamin therapy. Ataxia caused by other conditions, such as chicken pox or a viral infection, is likely to resolve on its own.

For hereditary ataxia and other conditions like multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, symptoms might not be treatable, so our team may recommend special devices or appliances that can assist in walking and other activities of daily life.

A variety of medications may be used to either effectively prevent ataxia symptoms or reduce the frequency with which they occur. Therapies can also help manage symptoms. For instance, physical therapy can strengthen muscles, while speech therapy can help improve speech and swallowing.

I am looking for advanced care or a second opinion.

Houston Methodist is your long-term partner in making treatment decisions. Our recommendations are tailored from years of experience successfully treating ataxia. We educate patients and families on every option available, from initial diagnosis through second opinions and beyond. 

Ataxia symptoms and treatment needs change over time. Our neurologists are part of a multidisciplinary team that tailors care plans to every patient’s unique condition.

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