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What is Ataxia?

On 25 September, it's International Ataxia Awareness Day. Dr Gretchen Hawley has written this piece to help you understand what ataxia is and some recommended exercises that you can do if you live with this condition. Headshot.jpg

Ataxia is described as a lack of muscle control and coordination of movements due to damage to the spinal cord and/or cerebellum, the part of our brain that controls balance. One of the most obvious ways ataxia presents in people who have multiple sclerosis (MS) is walking with an unsteady or staggered gait. This may mean that you have a widened stance, irregular foot placement, and abnormal distance between each step. Fortunately, there are many therapies and strategies that can be beneficial to improving ataxic gait.

Physiotherapy exercises can help improve and maintain function/movement. General guidelines, when performing exercises, are to incorporate motor control exercises. For example, practicing standing up without falling backwards or coordinating arm and leg movements while taking a single step. Additionally, balance and aerobic training can help improve motor control as well as fight fatigue. You can find several ataxia exercises here. Exercises should generally be performed for at least 20 minutes, 4 days a week, if your body can tolerate it. Remember that quality is more important than quantity.

General guidelines for exercising as well as moving around your home or community with ataxia are:
- Do one task at a time. Avoid multitasking.
- Make sure you’re stable after standing and before you take a step.
- Focus on quality of movement rather than speed.

Neurologic music therapy (NMT) and rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) have also been found to be effective therapies for ataxia. NMT is the culmination of music therapy, neurology, and brain sciences and is classified into 20 scientific and evidenced-based music interventions. The techniques are applied using music and rhythm to directly affect cognitive and physical function. RAS is considered to be a type of NMT and is defined as a therapeutic application of pulsed rhythmic or musical stimulation in order to improve gait or gait related aspects of movement. These treatments have been found to be effective in facilitating the prediction of motor timing and gait rhythm, ultimately resulting in improved foot placement and less staggered gait.

Finally, implementing “modified independence” during your day-to-day activities can be an effective way to improve coordination as well as safety. This means using a mobility aid, such as a cane, walker/rollator, trekking pole(s), etc. Using any of these aids can result in the ability to accomplish your tasks, such as walking around your home, climbing stairs, performing chores, but while ensuring maximum safety. Personally, I enjoy having my clients use a rollator while practicing walking so they can focus on foot placement and leg coordination, rather than additionally having to focus on balance. There’s no need to focus on everything all at once. Modify at first to allow your brain to focus on fewer components. Then, as you get stronger and improve your coordination, you may be able to take the mobility aid away.

If you'd like to learn more about MS-specific exercise, you can attend our monthly information sessions with Dr Gretchen Hawley. Find out more and sign up to our next session here