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Home >> Specialities >> Neurosciences >> Ataxia


Ataxia is a neurological disorder characterized by a lack of coordination in muscle movements, leading to unsteady gait, impaired speech, and difficulty with fine motor tasks. This condition can be caused by various underlying factors, and understanding its types, causes, and potential treatments is crucial for individuals affected by ataxia and their caregivers.

Types of Ataxia

  • Hereditary (Familial) Ataxia:
    • Friedreich's Ataxia: This is the most common hereditary ataxia, characterized by progressive loss of coordination, muscle weakness, and sometimes heart problems. It is caused by a mutation in the frataxin gene.
    • Spinocerebellar Ataxias (SCAs): SCAs are a group of inherited ataxias, each associated with a specific genetic mutation. They vary in severity and symptoms but share the common feature of cerebellar degeneration.
  • Acquired Ataxia
    • Cerebellar Ataxia: This form of ataxia results from damage or degeneration of the cerebellum, often due to stroke, tumors, multiple sclerosis, or certain infections.
    • Toxic Ataxia: Exposure to certain chemicals or toxins, such as lead, mercury, or alcohol, can lead to ataxia.
    • Vestibular Ataxia: Disorders of the inner ear's vestibular system can cause problems with balance and coordination.

Causes of Ataxia

  • Genetic Mutations
    • Hereditary ataxias are primarily caused by specific genetic mutations that affect the cerebellum and its connections with other parts of the brain.
  • Acquired Conditions
    • Stroke: Lack of blood flow to the cerebellum due to a stroke can lead to ataxia.
    • Tumors: Brain tumors, particularly those located in or near the cerebellum, can cause ataxia.
    • Infections: Certain infections, such as encephalitis or cerebellitis, can lead to acquired ataxia.
    • Autoimmune Disorders: Conditions like multiple sclerosis or gluten ataxia involve the immune system attacking the nervous system, leading to ataxia.
    • Toxic Exposure: Prolonged exposure to substances like lead, mercury, or certain medications (e.g., phenytoin) can cause ataxia.

Symptoms and Progression
Ataxia presents with a range of symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying cause and type of ataxia:

  • Unsteady Gait: Individuals with ataxia often have difficulty walking in a straight line and may appear unsteady or wobbly.
  • Loss of Coordination: Fine motor skills, such as writing, buttoning a shirt, or using utensils, may become challenging.
  • Slurred Speech: Ataxia can affect the muscles involved in speech, leading to slurred or unclear speech.
  • Difficulty Swallowing: Coordinated movements needed for swallowing may be impaired, leading to swallowing difficulties (dysphagia).
  • Eye Movement Abnormalities: Some forms of ataxia may cause nystagmus, which involves involuntary, rhythmic eye movements.

Diagnosis and Management

  • Neurological Evaluation: A thorough clinical assessment, including a detailed medical history, physical examination, and neurological tests, is crucial for diagnosing ataxia.
  • Genetic Testing: In cases of hereditary ataxia, genetic testing can help identify the specific mutation responsible.
  • Imaging Studies: MRI or CT scans of the brain may be performed to visualize any structural abnormalities or damage to the cerebellum.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapists can help individuals with ataxia improve balance, coordination, and mobility through targeted exercises and techniques.
  • Assistive Devices: Mobility aids, adaptive tools, and communication devices can greatly improve daily functioning for those with ataxia.

Ataxia is a complex neurological disorder with a wide range of underlying causes. Understanding the type and cause of ataxia is crucial for appropriate management and support. With early diagnosis, targeted interventions, and ongoing research, individuals affected by ataxia can lead fulfilling lives and overcome the challenges presented by this condition.

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