What Is Ataxia?

Northwestern Medicine Ataxia ClinicThe word "ataxia" means lack of coordination. People with ataxia have problems with balance and coordination when they move. It is a symptom caused by different diseases. These diseases affect the parts of the central nervous system that control your balance and coordination.

Many forms of ataxia are rare conditions that may be hard to diagnose and treat. Because of that, it is key that people with ataxia consult neurologists who have expertise and special training.

Northwestern Memorial hospital is a designated Ataxia Foundation Center of Excellence. This means we can diagnose and treat all types of ataxia.

Types of Ataxia

Types of ataxia include:

  • Hereditary or genetic ataxia:
    • Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs): There are at least 26 types of SCAs. Scientists are discovering more through research. SCAs typically start in adulthood. They are characterized by a unique set of symptoms. Genetic testing is only definitive way to determine which SCA affects you. If a child has a parent with SCA, the child has a 50% chance of being affected.
    • Friedreich ataxia: This generally starts during childhood. It is the most common form of recessively inherited ataxia. For a child to be affected, both parents must carry the disease gene. Carriers do not have symptoms, but each child of two carriers has a 25% chance of Friedrich ataxia. Each child of two carriers has a 50% chance of being carriers; they also have a 25% chance of not inheriting the ataxia gene.
  • Sporadic (degenerative) ataxias: People with sporadic (degenerative) ataxia have no family history of it. It may be hard to diagnose since there is no specific test for it. It is caused by degeneration in the part of your brain that controls balance and coordination. Symptoms generally start in adulthood. They may accompany other symptoms that are often symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (stiffness, slow movements, tremors while resting) or autonomic neuropathy (having trouble controlling blood pressure, and bladder and bowel function).
  • Secondary ataxia: This can start suddenly or gradually. It is a symptom of many medical and neurological conditions, including:
    • Vascular injury (stroke)
    • Metabolic problems, such as hypothyroidism and vitamin E or B12 deficiency
    • Exposure to certain drugs or toxins, such as long-term alcohol exposure, heavy metals, and some seizure or cancer medications
    • Infectious diseases, such as HIV, syphilis or a viral infection of the brain
    • Cancer, either in the brain or other areas of the body
    • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
    • Head trauma
    • Cerebral palsy
    • Congenital malformations

Related Resources



Quick Links

  • Ataxia: Find out more about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of ataxia
  • Friedreich's Ataxia: Read about the symptoms and treatment for this inherited degenerative disorder