Ataxia; A Neurological sign


Ataxia is a neurological sign consisting of lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements that can include gait abnormality, speech changes, and abnormalities in eye movements. Ataxia is a clinical manifestation indicating dysfunction of the parts of the nervous system that coordinate movement, such as the cerebellum. Ataxia can be limited to one side of the body, which is referred to as hemiataxia. Several possible causes exist for these patterns of neurological dysfunction. Dystaxia is a mild degree of ataxia. Friedreich's ataxia has gait abnormality as the most commonly presented symptom.

The term cerebellar ataxia is used to indicate ataxia due to dysfunction of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is responsible for integrating a significant amount of neural information that is used to coordinate smoothly ongoing movements and to participate in motor planning. Although ataxia is not present with all cerebellar lesions, many conditions affecting the cerebellum do produce ataxia.

People with cerebellar ataxia may have trouble regulating the force, range, direction, velocity, and rhythm of muscle contractions. This results in a characteristic type of irregular, uncoordinated movement that can manifest itself in many possible ways, such as asthenia, asynergy, delayed reaction time, and dyschronometria. Individuals with cerebellar ataxia could also display instability of gait, difficulty with eye movements, dysarthria, dysphagia, hypotonia, dysmetria, and dysdiadochokinesia. These deficits can vary depending on which cerebellar structures have been damaged, and whether the lesion is bi- or unilateral. People with cerebellar ataxia may initially present with poor balance, which could be demonstrated as an inability to stand on one leg or perform tandem gait. As the condition progresses, walking is characterized by a widened base and high stepping, as well as staggering and lurching from side to side. Turning is also problematic and could result in falls. As cerebellar ataxia becomes severe, great assistance and effort are needed to stand and walk. Dysarthria, impairment with articulation, may also be present and is characterized by "scanning" speech that consists of slower rate, irregular rhythm, and variable volume. Also, slurring of speech, tremor of the voice, and ataxic respiration may occur. Cerebellar ataxia could result with incoordination of movement, particularly in the extremities. Overshooting (or hypermetria) occurs with finger-to-nose testing and heel to shin testing; thus, dysmetria is evident. Impairments with alternating movements (dysdiadochokinesia), as well as dysrhythmia, may also be displayed. Tremor of the head and trunk (titubation) may be seen in individuals with cerebellar ataxia.

Dysmetria is thought to be caused by a deficit in the control of interaction torques in multi joint motion. Interaction torques are created at an associated joint when the primary joint is moved. For example, if a movement required reaching to touch a target in front of the body, flexion at the shoulder would create a torque at the elbow, while extension of the elbow would create a torque at the wrist. These torques increase as the speed of movement increases and must be compensated and adjusted for to create coordinated movement. This may, therefore, explain decreased coordination at higher movement velocities and accelerations.

Dysfunction of the vestibulocerebellum (flocculonodular lobe) impairs balance and the control of eye movements. This presents itself with postural instability, in which the person tends to separate his/her feet upon standing, to gain a wider base and to avoid titubation (bodily oscillations tending to be forward-backward ones). The instability is, therefore, worsened when standing with the feet together, regardless of whether the eyes are open or closed. This is a negative Romberg's test, or more accurately, it denotes the individual's inability to carry out the test, because the individual feels unstable even with open eyes.

Dysfunction of the spinocerebellum (vermis and associated areas near the midline) presents itself with a wide-based "drunken sailor" gait (called truncal ataxia), characterised by uncertain starts and stops, lateral deviations, and unequal steps. As a result of this gait impairment, falling is a concern in patients with ataxia. Studies examining falls in this population show that 74–93% of patients have fallen at least once in the past year and up to 60% admit to fear of falling.
John Morris

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