Ataxia

If you’ve been diagnosed with Ataxia or are experiencing problems with your coordination and balance, it’s important to be seen by a team of specialists who focus on ataxia. At the Ataxia Clinic, part of the Division of Neurology at the University of Michigan Health System, we have one of the most comprehensive ataxia programs in the country. That means you can be sure your diagnosis is correct and you’re getting the best treatment. 

The term ataxia refers to a group of progressive neurological diseases that affect coordination and balance. Ataxias are often characterized by poor coordination of hands and eye movements, speech problems and a wide-based and unsteady gait.

Ataxia can result from:

  • Heredity
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Alcohol
  • Toxins
  • Stroke
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Tumor
  • Infection
  • Trauma
  • Degenerative changes in the cerebellum

The disorder is generally classified into two groups: hereditary and sporadic ataxias. Hereditary ataxias, of which there are many, affect the cerebellum and spinal cord and are caused by a defective gene. Some hereditary ataxias are passed from one generation to the next in a family. These include the Spinocerebellar Ataxias or SCAs. Other hereditary ataxias are recessively inherited disorders that often affect only one generation in a family. One common recessive ataxia is Friedreich's ataxia. Sporadic ataxias are usually not genetic and occur spontaneously in individuals with no known family history of ataxia.

About 50% of the time, patients referred to us with the diagnosis with ataxia don’t actually have the disorder. Other movement disorders can produce balance issues, which can be confused with ataxia. Because of our high volume of patients and dedicated Ataxia Clinic, we have a better understanding of the disorder and how to recognize it.

We may advise genetic testing for you before diagnosis, because genetic testing has the potential to help with diagnosis and to select proper treatment. Plus, this one test may be all that’s needed to confirm your diagnosis, keeping you from requiring a battery of other tests. We will gather a comprehensive medical history and perform a physical exam. In addition, we may order blood work, an MRI of your brain and spine, as well as an electromyography (EMG) to measure the electrical activity of your muscles.

Many treatment options for ataxia are supportive treatments to improve quality of life, which can include aggressive physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. Reversible forms of ataxia can benefit from medication. We’re also involved in multiple clinical trials, which are available to interested patients who qualify.

Research is an important focus of our group. We are leading the country in understanding the mechanisms causing hereditary ataxia and developing novel therapies for this disorder. In addition, our Clinic is one of nine in the U.S. working together in a national consortium, funded by National Institute of Health’s Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, to better understand and treat hereditary ataxia.

For more information contact us at 734-936-9020.