What is ataxia?

Ataxia is a loss of muscle control, but the problem isn't weakness in the muscles themselves—it's caused by an issue with the nerves that normally tell those muscles to move.

Usually, ataxia is a symptom of another condition, such as a stroke or a nerve injury, but the term is also used as the name of certain degenerative nerve disorders. Known as hereditary ataxia and sporadic ataxia, these are diseases called ataxia that cause ataxia as the main symptom.

Causes of ataxia

As a symptom, ataxia can be caused by many things. These causes can include:

  • Stroke or brain hemorrhage
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Severe vitamin deficiency
  • Alcoholism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Tumors
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Brain injury from trauma or lack of oxygen
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Syphilis

When referring to ataxia the disease, the cause is a defective gene that makes proteins incorrectly. Over time, these defective proteins break down nerve cells until they stop sending signals to the muscles. This defective gene can run in families (hereditary ataxia) or happen randomly (sporadic ataxia).

Symptoms of ataxia

While all ataxia involves some type of damage to the nerves, the exact symptoms can vary depending on which nerves are affected and which muscles they control. Two people who both have ataxia may experience very different symptoms.

Common symptoms include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Problems with balance
  • Loss of coordination of the fingers, hands, arms or legs
  • Difficulty eating, writing or doing hands-on tasks
  • Walking with a widened stance
  • Moving the eyes more slowly than normal

If you're experiencing problems with balance, coordination or muscle weakness, talk to your doctor.

Diagnosis and testing for ataxia

If you're experiencing ataxia, your doctor will do a physical exam to see how severe the symptoms are and which parts of the body are affected. Your doctor will also ask questions about your medical history and your family's medical history.

You'll also need to undergo some testing. This may involve blood tests, a urine test, genetic testing to check for defective genes, and/or imaging studies like an MRI.


Depending on the cause, sometimes treatment for an underlying condition can improve ataxia—or at least stop its progression. With a combination of treatment and therapy, it's possible to regain some strength and coordination.

Treatments can include:

  • Medication
  • Surgery
  • Deep brain stimulation
  • Neurostimulator implants
  • Spinal cord stimulation and pumps
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy

Unfortunately, in many cases, it's not possible to fix the nerve injury that caused ataxia in the first place, and there is no cure for hereditary or sporadic ataxia. In this situation, treatment focuses on maintaining as much independence as possible.

Neurology Medical Management

Physical Therapy

Each inpatient and outpatient physical therapy rehab is individually designed and administered by a licensed physical therapist who consistently guides you from that first visit all the way through recovery.

Speech Therapy

Our multidisciplinary approach to inpatient and outpatient speech therapy rehab includes expert diagnosis and treatment of speech, language, cognitive and swallowing disorders led by master’s-level, licensed and certified speech pathologists.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy and sensory integration helps patients who’ve experienced a debilitative injury or illness return to activities of daily living (ADL), such as dressing, eating, writing, shopping, toileting and driving.




The neurology team at Main Line Health treats and manages conditions such as migraines, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and more.