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Sensory ataxia

Sensory ataxia leads to a lack of muscle movement coordination caused by a loss of the sense of where different parts of the body are located in relation to each other and the ground. Caused by damage to the nerves that send constant feedback from the position sensors in the joints and muscles to the movement control centre in the brain, sensory ataxia leads to unsteady walking and, in particular, may affect the ability to balance in the dark or with closed eyes (in situations such as showering).

What do the symptoms of sensory ataxia feel like?

Due to the loss of sensation in the feet and legs in sensory ataxia, sufferers develop an unsteady, possibly stomping gait, with the foot striking the ground hard on each step, which is sometimes described as ‘walking on pillows’. It may also be associated with pain in the feet and legs.

With less feedback on the position of the feet and legs in relation to the environment, the brain depends more highly on visual information to assess body position, so unsteadiness and imbalance become more pronounced with closed eyes or in low light.

What causes sensory ataxia?

Sensory ataxia is generally caused by damage to nerves in the spinal cord or nerves leading to the extremities, such as the feet and legs. Loss of sensation in the feet, hands and torso caused by nerve damage can result from systemic diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, spinal cord compression, exposure to toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic, and a number of other conditions.

How is a diagnosis made?

If referred to a specialist by your GP, diagnosis of your condition will be made based on your medical history, answers to questions about your symptoms, a physical examination and the results of a number of tests. These tests may include a blood test and a nerve conduction study to assess how well the messages are being carried from areas such as the feet and legs up to the spine and brain.

How is sensory ataxia treated?

The main focus of sensory ataxia treatment is to try and halt progress of the nerve damage, alleviate symptoms, increase independence and minimise the risk of falls. If a cause is found, then treatment, where possible, will address the underlying cause.

Treatment may involve referral to an occupational therapist, who can make adjustments to the home environment and suggest ways to make daily living activities easier. Specialist, balance physiotherapy and the use of mobility aids may also be necessary and special medications can be prescribed to control pain of nerve origin, if necessary.

Living with sensory ataxia

Living with sensory ataxia involves working with physiotherapists and occupational therapists to ensure safe mobility and to maintain as much independence as possible. This may include using mobility aids, adjusting the home environment and making lifestyle adjustments (such as alcohol avoidance) to make daily activities easier.

Online resources

The National Ataxia Foundation is a US-based non-profit organisation. Their website contains useful information about ataxia. Visit www.ataxia.org

Definition of sensory ataxia medical terms

Sensory: refers to the sensors located in the skin, muscles and joints that send messages to the brain’s movement and balance control centre about, for example, the position of the body. See How does the balance system work? for more information.

Ataxia: lack of coordination caused by loss of control over movement and balance.