There are many types of ataxia, broadly grouped into the following:
1. Acquired ataxia: caused by problems in the brain or nervous system, perhaps as a result of stroke, head injury, brain tumour or another condition such as multiple sclerosis
2. Hereditary ataxia: caused by genes that are ‘faulty’ and inherited from the person’s parents. There are different types of hereditary ataxia, caused by faults in different genes:
• Friedreich’s ataxia is the most common type of hereditary ataxia and often first diagnosed in childhood or during teenage years. Symptoms may include heart problems, scoliosis, vision loss, diabetes and declining mobility
For more information on Friedreich’s ataxia, visit the Contact a Family website.
Ataxia-telangiectasia (AT) is usually diagnosed before the age of 25; this is one of the rarer ataxias but often progresses quite quickly. Young people with this condition may need to use a wheelchair at an early age and may be at higher risk of developing cancer. For more information on AT, visit the AT Society website.
• Spinocerebellar ataxias are divided into several types according to the gene that is faulty. They are characterised by additional symptoms such as memory loss, language difficulties and muscle stiffness
• Episodic ataxia is quite rare and occurs only occasionally, for a few minutes or hours. It is seemingly triggered by alcohol, caffeine, stress or exercise. This type of ataxia develops during adolescence and seems to get better over time
• Ataxia with vitamin E deficiency has symptoms which are similar to those of Friedreich’s ataxia, but are caused by the body’s inability to use vitamin E, which protects cells, maintains healthy eyes and bone and muscle strength
3. Idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA) occurs due to progressive damage to the brain, although the cause of this type of ataxia is often unclear. Possible causes include infection, brain lesions or tumours, brain malformations (at birth) and metabolic disorders. This type of ataxia is associated with being very unsteady and characterised by the person developing significant coordination and balance difficulties
4. Gluten ataxia is a type of ataxia caused by the body's reaction to gluten, which is consumed in bread and other wheat, barley or rye products. The body’s immune system causes damage to the cerebellum
Many other conditions have similar symptoms so it can take some time to receive a diagnosis of ataxia and discover which type you have.
If you have symptoms of ataxia, a special doctor called a neurologist will try to find out the causes through assessing your abilities and difficulties, undertaking scans of your brain, taking the family history and perhaps genetic testing to ascertain if faulty genes are causing your ataxia.
For more information about the types and causes of ataxia, see the NHS website.