Acute Cerebellar Ataxia
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Acute Cerebellar Ataxia


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Acute cerebellar ataxia is a disorder of the nervous system marked by the sudden onset of a disturbance in muscle coordination, especially in the trunk, arms, and legs.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination. It does not function properly in the case of cerebellar ataxia. Although the abnormality of the limbs is most often noticed, it can also cause abnormal eye movements. Nausea and vomiting may also occur as part of the disorder.

While it can occur at any age, acute cerebellar ataxia is most common in young children. It can occur several weeks after a viral infection, such as chickenpox . Most cases go away without treatment in a matter of months. However, recurrent or chronic progressive cerebellar ataxia does occur.

If you suspect you or your child has this condition, contact your doctor immediately.

Cerebellum (Darker Pink Section)

Bottom view brain

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Causes of acute cerebellar ataxia include:

  • Viral infections, including:
  • Exposure to certain toxins, such as lead , mercury , thallium, and alcohol
  • Cerebellar hemorrhage, abscess, blood clot, or obstruction of an artery

Causes of recurrent or chronic acute ataxia include:

Plaque Build-up From Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis

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Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. The following factors increase your chance of developing acute cerebellar ataxia:

  • Childhood, especially three years of age or younger
  • Viral infections
  • Exposure to certain insecticides, drugs, or toxins


If you experience any of the following symptoms, do not assume it is due to acute cerebellar ataxia. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions, as well. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.

  • Uncoordinated movements of the limbs or trunk
  • Clumsiness with daily activities
  • Difficulty walking (unsteadiness)
  • Speech disturbances with slurred speech and changes in tone, pitch, and volume
  • Visual complaints
  • Accompanying symptoms may include:
    • Headache
    • Dizziness
    • Changes in mental state (such as personality or behavioral changes)
    • Chaotic eye movements
    • Clumsy speech pattern


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical and family history, and perform a physical exam. He or she will observe your limb coordination to assess the degree and nature of the ataxia.

Further tests may include the following:

  • Examination of cerebrospinal fluid
  • MRI or CT scan—x-rays that use magnetic waves or computers to make pictures of structures inside the head
  • Metabolic blood tests
  • Ultrasound—a test that uses sound waves to examine the head
  • Urine analysis


There is no treatment for acute cerebellar ataxia. Ataxia usually goes away without any treatment. In cases where an underlying cause is identified, your doctor will treat the underlying cause.

In extremely rare cases, you may have continuing and disabling symptoms. Treatment includes corticosteroids, intravenous immune globulin , or plasma exchange therapy.

Drug treatment to improve muscle coordination has a low success rate. However, the following drugs may be prescribed: clonazepam, amantadine, gabapentin, or buspirone. Occupational or physical therapy may also alleviate lack of coordination. Changes to diet and nutritional supplements may also help.


There is no way to prevent acute cerebellar ataxia except to vaccinate children against viral infections that increase their risk of getting this condition.


National Ataxia Foundation

National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)


BC Healthguide

Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)


Berman P. Ataxia in children. International Pediatrics. 1999:14:44-47.

Bradley WG, Daroff RB. Neurology in Clinical Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Butterworth Heinemann Publishing; 2004.

Cerebellar ataxia. BBC News website. Available at: . Accessed November 26, 2006.

Cerebellar ataxia. Patient UK website. Available at: . Accessed November 26, 2006.

Cerebellar ataxia: a guide for the medical profession. Ataxia UK website. Available at: . Accessed November 27, 2006.

Cerabellar disorders. The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library website. Available at: . Accessed November 27, 2006.

Encephalopathy. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: . Accessed November 26, 2006.

Mack KJ Lehwald L. Acute cerebellar ataxia in children. In: Gilman S, editor. MedLink Neurology. San Diego: MedLink Corporation. Available at Accessed February 18th, 2008.

Stumpf DA. Acute Ataxia Pediatr Rev. 1987;8;303-306

Last reviewed February 2008 by J. Thomas Megerian, MD, PhD, FAAP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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