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Are Ataxia and Parkinson’s Disease Related?

Ataxia is a word used to describe any type of uncoordinated movement. It comes from the Greek term “a taxis,” which means “without order.” According to the National Ataxia Foundation, as many as 150,000 people in the US are affected by ataxia.1

People with Parkinson’s disease often experience problems coordinating their movements.1 This can including stiffness or difficulty walking, slurred speech, or a tremor in the hand. In fact, symptoms of uncoordinated movement can be some of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s. These often get worse over time.3

Ataxia has different meanings

The term "ataxia" can sometimes be confusing because it may be used in different ways. On the one hand, ataxia refers to symptoms of uncoordinated movement. But Ataxia may also refer to a group of genetic disorders that run in families and affect the way the brain coordinates movement in different parts of the body. This kind of Ataxia gets worse over time and is known as a neurodegenerative disease.

What symptoms appear when you have ataxia?

Ataxia can appear suddenly or develop over time. Common symptoms include:4

  • Unsteady walk and a tendency to trip or stumble
  • Change in speech, including a slur
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty picking up objects, eating, or doing activities that require fine-motor skills
  • Fast back-and-forth eye movements
  • Trouble swallowing

What causes ataxia?

Uncoordinated movement can be a symptom of many underlying causes, from viral infections to head injuries to Parkinson’s disease.

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Symptoms of ataxia can be a sign that you may have a disorder of the nervous system or a part of the brain that coordinates movement (known as the cerebellum). Depending on what causes your ataxia, it can be temporary or more lasting (called persistent).

Conditions that can lead to symptoms of ataxia include:3

  • Head injuries, especially after traumas like a car accident.
  • Stroke, when your brain does not get enough oxygen and brain cells die.
  • Parkinson’s disease, which is a long-term neurodegenerative disease, where signaling and coordination among your brain, nerves, and muscles breaks down over time.
  • Viral infections like chickenpox, can, in rare cases, lead to ataxia. This kind of ataxia generally goes away over time.
  • Cerebral palsy, which results from damage to a baby’s brain before, during, or soon after birth.
  • Certain autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease and multiple sclerosis.
  • Tumor, even if it is not cancerous and does not spread, a tumor can damage the cerebellum and cause movement problems.
  • Vitamin deficiency, including not having enough vitamin E, vitamin B-12, or thiamin. Consuming a lot of alcohol can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb these vitamins.
  • Reactions to medicine, including sedatives and chemotherapy. These effects can be reversed if you catch them quickly.
  • Alcohol, which can destroy cells in your cerebellum over time. This type of ataxia may or may not get better.
  • Genetic factors that run in families and cause a series of specific diseases that get worse over time.

If you experience ataxia, your health care team will try to understand its cause, so they can treat the underlying disorder as well as the symptoms.

What is hereditary ataxia?

There are some types of Ataxia that are caused by genetic mutations, or mistakes in your genes, that you are born with. (Genes are molecular instruction manuals that exist in every cell in your body.) This kind of Ataxia runs in families since genes are passed down from parents to children.

Because the systems for coordinating movement are so complicated (involving nerves, muscles, the spinal cord, and the cerebellum in the brain) there are many different mutations in different genes that can disrupt coordination. Researchers have found many of them, but there are many others that we have still not identified. Many of the mutations that lead to hereditary Ataxia cause long-term damage and may get worse over time.3

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