Cerebellar Ataxia

Current Treatment Options in Neurology 2000, 2 (3): 215-224
There is nothing more discouraging than for a patient to be given a specific diagnosis, then to be told that there is nothing that can be done. Physicians are equally disheartened to see exponential progress being made in the understanding of the pathophysiology of a complex disorder but few direct benefits resulting for their patients. Over the past 5 years, molecular genetic research has completely revolutionized the way in which the progressive cerebellar ataxias are classified and diagnosed, but it has yet to produce effective gene-based, neuroprotective, or neurorestorative therapies. The treatment of cerebellar ataxia remains primarily a neurorehabilitation challenge, employing physical, occupational, speech, and swallowing therapy; adaptive equipment; driver safety training; and nutritional counseling. Modest additional gains are seen with the use of medications that can improve imbalance, incoordination, or dysarthria (amantadine, buspirone, acetazolamide); cerebellar tremor (clonazepam, propranolol); and cerebellar or central vestibular nystagmus (gabapentin, baclofen, clonazepam). Many of the progressive cerebellar syndromes have associated features involving other neurologic systems (eg, spasticity, dystonia or rigidity, resting or rubral tremor, chorea, motor unit weakness or fatigue, autonomic dysfunction, peripheral or posterior column sensory loss, neuropathic pain or cramping, double vision, vision and hearing loss, dementia, and bowel, bladder, and sexual dysfunction), which can impede the treatment of the ataxic symptoms or can worsen with the use of certain drugs. Treatment of the associated features themselves may in turn worsen the ataxia either directly (as side effects of medication) or indirectly (eg, relaxation of lower limb spasticity that was acting as a stabilizer for an ataxic gait). Secondary complications of progressive ataxia can include deconditioning or immobility, weight loss or gain, skin breakdown, recurrent pulmonary and urinary tract infections, aspiration, occult respiratory failure, and obstructive sleep apnea, all of which can be life threatening. Depression in the patient and family members is common. Although no cures exist for most of the causes of cerebellar ataxia and there are as yet no proven ways to protect neurons from premature cell death or to restore neuronal populations that have been lost, symptomatic treatment can greatly improve the quality of life of these patients and prevent complications that could hasten death. Supportive interventions should always be offered-- education about the disease itself, genetic counseling, individual and family counseling, referral to support groups and advocacy groups, and guidance to online resources. Misinformation, fear, depression, hopelessness, isolation, and financial and interpersonal stress can often cause more harm to the patient and caregiver than the ataxia itself.

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