Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Quick Answer

Ataxic cerebral palsy only affects an estimated 5 to 10 percent of cerebral palsy patients, making it the rarest form of the condition. Ataxic cerebral palsy is caused by injury to the cerebellum and is named for the uncoordinated and uncontrolled movements it causes.

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Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Explained

Ataxic cerebral palsy is caused by traumatic brain damage that occurs during pregnancy or childbirth, or later in life via trauma. It is the rarest type of cerebral palsy. People with ataxic cerebral palsy typically have unsteady movement and a lack of coordination called “ataxia,” as well as reduced muscle tone.

Ataxic cerebral palsy occurs when the cerebellum, which controls balance and motor function, is permanently injured. The cerebellum is part of the brain responsible for balance, motor control, and fine-tuning coordination.

While the cerebellum doesn’t trigger movement, it sends signals to ensure the body appropriately responds when movement occurs. If the cerebellum is damaged, these signals may occur too slowly or fail to occur at all, resulting in physical challenges.

Ataxia typically affects all or most of the body at once but may impact any part of the body, including:

  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Fingers
  • Eyes
  • Throat

While there isn’t a cure for ataxic cerebral palsy, proactive management can minimize its effects  on a person’s life. A mix of early intervention, therapy and medication can help people with ataxic cerebral palsy thrive in today’s world.

The symptoms of ataxia can make walking and other movements difficult and sometimes unpredictable, but not necessarily impossible. Many people with ataxic cerebral palsy can live functional and independent lives.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Types

Ataxic cerebral palsy is one of 4 main types of cerebral palsy. Because each type of cerebral palsy is caused by damage to a different part of the brain, it’s possible to have more than one form of cerebral palsy at a time, if the brain’s damage is extensive.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy and Spastic Cerebral Palsy

Ataxic cerebral palsy can combine with spastic cerebral palsy, resulting in a combination of symptoms from both types of cerebral palsy. Ataxic cerebral palsy is marked by poor coordination and balance troubles, while spastic cerebral palsy results in stiff muscles that result in stiff, jerky movements.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Symptoms

Ataxic cerebral palsy can present itself in many ways, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Poor body coordination
  • Balance problems
  • Unsteady walking with a wide gait
  • Unusual speech (“scanning speech”)
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Poor depth perception
  • Trouble swallowing

Unsteady walking and unusual body movements are often early indicators of ataxic cerebral palsy, but can easily be mistaken for other conditions or growth disorders. Therefore, doctors often wait until a child is at least 2 years old before making a formal ataxic cerebral palsy diagnosis.

Slow eye movements and difficulty swallowing may also be noticeable in babies and young children, while issues with swallowing may also result in acid reflux.

Most children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed after their parents notice their lack of coordination and balance problems. Children with ataxic cerebral palsy find it hard to move quickly or precisely, and they may have trouble writing or buttoning their clothes as a result.

Scanning Speech

“Scanning speech” may begin to present itself as children get older. Scanning speech is a speech pattern marked by a monotone, breathy-sounding voice, sometimes with sudden accelerations or pauses. However, not all people with ataxic cerebral palsy experience scanning speech.

Intention Tremors

People with ataxic cerebral palsy may also have “intention tremors.” These tremors are involuntary movements that occur when a person tries to perform a physical task. For example, if a child with ataxia reaches for a book, their hand and arm may start to quiver. The movement might grow worse as they get closer to the shelf.

Cognitive Impairment

Ataxic cerebral palsy impacts the motor functions of the body but does not usually impact intelligence or the ability to learn. Typically, when ataxic cerebral palsy patients have cognitive impairments, it’s due to additional brain damage which may or may not be from the same injury that caused the condition.

Fortunately, symptoms of ataxic cerebral palsy do not worsen over time. By age 3 to 5, a child’s symptoms will peak and likely will not degenerate further.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Causes

Ataxic cerebral palsy occurs when the cerebellum is damaged by trauma or other unnatural means.

Ataxic cerebral palsy can be caused by:

  • Lesions on the brain
  • Failure to treat illness during pregnancy
  • Fetal distress during labor
  • Delayed C-section
  • Misuse of forceps or other birthing tools
  • The mother’s exposure to toxins
  • Blood type incompatibility with the mother
  • Untreated jaundice
  • Direct trauma to the brain

Babies born prematurely or with a low birth weight are more likely to be diagnosed with cerebral palsy than full-term babies at average or above-average birth weights.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy Treatment and Therapy

Ataxic cerebral palsy can cause difficult physical challenges that will directly impact a person for their entire lives. However, this impact can be greatly reduced with early intervention, proper treatment and skilled therapy.

The most common treatments for ataxic cerebral palsy include:

  • Medication
  • Casts, splints, and orthotics
  • Walking aids
  • Physical therapy and exercises
  • Nutrition guidance

Medicine and surgical options may be used to reduce the symptoms that occur in patients with ataxic cerebral palsy. Helping the body balance or return to a more normal state can greatly reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Physical Therapy for Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Regardless of whether medical and surgical treatments are an option, physical therapy can help treat ataxic cerebral palsy. Physical therapy helps a person manage their disabilities and live independently.

While there is no cure for ataxic cerebral palsy, physical therapy can help reduce the impact of the condition by minimizing symptoms and teaching people how to function as best as possible when symptoms do occur.

A recent study used a virtual reality environment with the Nintendo Wi to successfully help a patient improve balance and coordination skills. Although additional research is required to prove this treatment method, it demonstrates the potential for new physical therapy treatments.

Legal Help for Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Ataxic cerebral palsy is the result of damage to the cerebellum and can be caused by a birth injury. If your child has ataxic cerebral palsy, financial compensation may be available to help you pay for your child’s medication, treatment, therapies and special needs costs.

Work with an attorney experienced in cerebral palsy cases to get the justice you deserve. Contact the Birth Injury Justice Center today at 800-914-1562 to get a free medical case review.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
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