MS Symptom:

Ataxia

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Around four out of five people with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience ataxia. For most, it’s relatively mild and short-term. Ataxia may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness, spasticity, reduced strength, sensory or visual issues such as double vision.

Identifying ataxia and seeking early treatment is key. With the right information and support, it can be managed effectively to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.

Ataxia is a lack of coordination of muscle movements which can appear as clumsiness, unsteady gait, impaired eye and limb movements, speech problems and sometimes dizziness. Its impact varies and depends on which part, and how much, of the nervous system has been damaged by MS.

Ataxia is most often caused by disease activity in the cerebellum (the part of your brain that controls muscle coordination and balance).

Movements such as walking and speaking involve complex messages from the brain and feedback from the nerves. Nerve fibre damage from MS can delay or interrupt the matching of these messages, resulting in ataxia.

The three types of ataxia relate to the location of the nerve damage and can occur in isolation or together:

  • Sensory Ataxia occurs when there’s damage to the sensory pathways that control the messaging between the spinal cord and the limbs. This interferes with the person’s ability to know where the parts of the body are in relation to each other and to their surroundings. This is known as proprioception. For example, this can cause the person to have a ‘stomping walk’ as they cannot judge where their legs are in relation to the ground.
  • Vestibular Ataxia occurs when there’s damage to the cranial nerve and the person may experience dizziness or unsteadiness.
  • Cerebellar Ataxia occurs when there’s damage to the part of the brain that looks after coordination and motor control. This can cause floppiness, lack of coordination and an inability to control power and speed of movement.

If you have ataxia concerns, talk to your neurologist, MS Nurse or GP, or ask to be referred to the appropriate specialist.

Physiotherapists, occupational therapists and rehabilitation specialists can provide individualised programs to help manage ataxia effectively. It’s important that this is done under the supervision of a health professional, to ensure you are properly assessed and an individualised plan is tailored for your needs. Sometimes, ataxia can be only short-term following a relapse, but for others, symptoms can be longer lasting.

Treatment for ataxia depends on the cause, but usually involves a combination of rehabilitation and compensatory strategies. Adaptive devices, such as walkers or canes, might help you maintain your independence, both short and long term. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and regular aerobic exercise might also help, as well as developing compensatory strategies and doing activities that challenge your sense of balance and coordination, even if you find it hard.

Watch our MS in a Minute video

Our MS in a Minute videos were created to provide fast and factual definitions of commonly used terms in MS.

General Information and Assistance

There is support available to help you manage your MS.

Your neurologist, MS Nurse or GP should be the first contact for any new and/or persistent ataxia concerns, so they can perform a detailed assessment and tailor a management plan or referrals if needed.

Contact your state or territory MS organisation to access services such as MS Nurses, peer support and other resources.

The following support services may be able to provide lifestyle, wellbeing, or other advice:

  • Independent Living Centres 1300 885 886 provides information about products (including aids useful for ataxia and tremor), services and funding options to help people remain independent and improve quality of life
  • Carers Australia 1800 242 636 provides information and advice to carers, their friends and families about carer support and services
  • SCA Australia is a local support group for people with ataxia issues, in particular cerebellar ataxias
  • The National Ataxia Foundation website (US-based, not-for-profit organisation) has useful general information
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Ataxia