Ataxia is a rare degenerative disease of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Many of its most noticeable symptoms mimic those of being drunk, such as slurred speech, stumbling, falling and a lack of muscular coordination. Ataxia comes from the Greek roots, “a-” and “-taxis,” meaning lack of coordination.
Ataxia affects approximately 150,000 people in the United States alone, according to the National Ataxia Foundation’s website. This progressive disease is caused by severe damage to the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain responsible for sending neurons to the muscular system.
Based on the severity of the symptoms and which muscles are affected, several different types of ataxia exist: spinocerebellar, vestibulocerebellar, Friedreich’s ataxia and ataxia telangiectasia. And then there are subtypes within those forms of ataxia that make diagnosis even more complicated. For example, there are 36 distinct forms of spinocerebellar ataxia, of which roughly a dozen are known. The form I have is one of the unknown forms.
People affected by this neurological condition may have problems using their fingers, hands, arms or legs, due to the inability for the cerebellum to properly relay messages to the musculature. Other symptoms include severe nystagmus (uncontrollable movement of the pupils), tremors and heart complications. Symptoms typically worsen as the disease progresses, and further problems may require physical therapy to treat them.
With ataxia I am entitled to special accommodations with classes which I personally don’t often use because I do not want to be seen as different. For instance, while it may help, I refuse to use a walker or wheelchair.
At Bradley in particular, walking proves to be the biggest challenge. For example, I used to have to walk from Bradley Hall to the Global Communications Center in a mere 10 minutes.
As aforesaid, ataxias are caused by damage to the cerebellum and occur in a number of ways. These can either be genetically inherited or acquired later in life due to any number of causes, from vitamin deficiencies to various cancers.
Because of this, it is difficult for neurologists to find a cure. So, as of now, ataxia is an incurable disease. That being said, many people with ataxia go to different doctors who one day hope to develop a cure. For instance, I have been to several different doctors and neurologists at various hospitals across the U.S., from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland to the University of Chicago School of Medicine in Illinois, where they, through various methods, tried to find a cure.
Treatment for ataxia is individualized for each person affected. Common options for treatment are speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, which are sometimes used in conjunction with different types of medication. It is also important for people with ataxia to remain active for as long as possible.
For more information about the types of ataxias, you can visit the National Ataxia Foundation at www.ataxia.org or donate to expedite further research.