Acute cerebellar ataxia

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Definition

Acute cerebellar ataxia is sudden, uncoordinated muscle movement due to disease or injury to the cerebellum. This is the area in the brain that controls muscle movement. Ataxia means loss of muscle coordination, especially of the hands and legs.

Alternative Names

Cerebellar ataxia; Ataxia - acute cerebellar; Cerebellitis; Post-varicella acute cerebellar ataxia; PVACA

Causes

Acute cerebellar ataxia in children, particularly younger than age 3, may occur several days or weeks after an illness caused by a virus.

Viral infections that may cause this include chickenpox, Coxsackie disease, Epstein-Barr, echovirus, among others.

Other causes of acute cerebellar ataxia include:

  • Abscess of the cerebellum
  • Alcohol, medicines, and insecticides, and illicit drugs
  • Bleeding into the cerebellum
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Strokes of the cerebellum
  • Vaccination
  • Trauma to head and neck
  • Certain diseases associated with some cancers (paraneoplastic disorders)

Symptoms

Ataxia may affect movement of the middle part of the body from the neck to the hip area (the trunk) or the arms and legs (limbs).

When the person is sitting, the body may move side-to-side, back-to-front, or both. Then the body quickly moves back to an upright position.

When a person with ataxia of the arms reaches for an object, the hand may sway back and forth.

Common symptoms of ataxia include:

  • Clumsy speech pattern (dysarthria)
  • Repetitive eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Uncoordinated eye movements
  • Walking problems (unsteady gait) that can lead to falls

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will ask if the person has recently been sick and will try to rule out any other causes of the problem. Brain and nervous system examination will be done to identify the most affected areas of the nervous system.

The following tests may be ordered:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the cause:

  • If the acute cerebellar ataxia is due to bleeding, surgery may be needed.
  • For an ischemic stroke, medicine to thin the blood can be given.
  • Infections may need to be treated with antibiotics or antivirals.
  • Corticosteroids may be needed for swelling (inflammation) of the cerebellum (such as from multiple sclerosis).
  • Cerebellar ataxia caused by a recent viral infection may not need treatment.

Outlook (Prognosis)

People whose condition was caused by a recent viral infection should make a full recovery without treatment in a few months. Strokes, bleeding, or infections may cause permanent symptoms.

Possible Complications

In rare cases, movement or behavioral disorders may persist.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if any symptoms of ataxia appear.

References

Kuo SH, Lin CC, Ashizawa T. Cerebellar ataxia. In: Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, Newman NJ, eds. Bradley and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 23.

Mink JW. Movement disorders. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 615.

Review Date: 
1/28/2021
Reviewed By: 
Evelyn O. Berman, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at University of Rochester, Rochester, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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