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What Is Ataxia?

Ataxia is a loss of muscle control. People with ataxia may have difficulty with balance, coordination, and walking. Ataxia can affect the muscles that are used for speech as well as movements of:

  • Fingers
  • Hands
  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Body
  • Eyes

The word ataxia can be used to describe symptoms, or it can refer to a group of degenerative diseases of the central nervous system. These are:

  • Hereditary ataxia — This type is caused by a defect in a gene that a person is born with. The severity of the disease depends on many factors. Some types of hereditary ataxia start in childhood. Others start in the adult years. UR Medicine has a specialized Hereditary Ataxia Program which offers coordinated care for patients with genetic forms of ataxia. 
  • Sporadic ataxia — This type usually starts in adulthood. There is no known family history.

Symptoms and when they start may vary, depending on the type of ataxia. The most common symptoms include:

  • Balance and movement problems (affected first)
  • Poor movement of hands, arms, and legs
  • Slurring of speech
  • Wide-based gait when walking
  • Trouble writing and eating
  • Slow eye movements
  • Falls

Many things can cause the symptoms of ataxia, including:

With hereditary ataxia, a defective gene makes abnormal proteins, causing nerve cell damage that leads to ataxia. As the disease progresses, muscles react less and less to the commands of the brain. This causes balance and coordination to get worse over time.

In addition to a neurological and physical exam, your provider may order tests such as:

UR Medicine's Treatments for Ataxia

There is no cure for hereditary ataxia, but treatments including physical therapy, speech therapy, and medications can help lessen symptoms.

UR Medicine has a specialized Hereditary Ataxia Program. This multidisciplinary team offers coordinated care for patients with genetic forms of ataxia. 

If ataxia is caused by a stroke, a low vitamin level, or contact with a toxic drug or chemical, then treatment focuses on those causes. If the ataxia is caused by your immune system attacking the brain, you may have treatments to suppress your immune system.

Research is being done on cerebellar and spinocerebellar degeneration. This includes work to find the causes of ataxias and ways to treat, cure, and prevent them.

What Sets Us Apart?

UR Medicine Neurology is a recognized leader for developing superior clinicians and scientists and has developed a national reputation for excellence in residency training in adult and child neurology and numerous subspecialties. The department is rich with dedicated faculty, an outstanding blend of academic and clinical training, exposure to nationally recognized specialists and a supportive environment provide residents with the opportunity to truly excel in their fields.

The UR Medicine Periodic Paralysis, Myotonia, and Episodic Ataxia Clinic provides specialized services for patients with these neurologic channelopathies. The Hereditary Ataxia Program at UR Medicine offers coordinated care for patients with genetic forms of ataxia. We are the only program in the Rochester region, and we see patients from throughout upstate New York.


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