Acute cerebellar ataxia: Everything you need to know

Children

Ataxia means the loss of coordination of body movements. Acute cerebellar ataxia is a disorder in children that causes a sudden loss of coordination.

It is relatively prevalent in children, especially following an infection or serious illness. Most cases resolve without specific treatment.

Acute cerebellar ataxia is the most common cause of childhood ataxia. Read on to learn more about acute cerebellar ataxia, including the symptoms and treatment.

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A child with acute cerebellar ataxia may experience loss of coordination.

The cerebellum is a part of the brain that plays a vital role in many functions, including movement, coordination, and balance. Damage to the cerebellum may affect movement and coordination, resulting in ataxia.

In children, the most common cause of acute cerebellar ataxia is a recent infection with bacteria or a virus.

The infection can cause the cerebellum to swell, affecting the child’s balance and other functions. In most cases, the symptoms go away within 30 days.

The symptoms of acute cerebellar ataxia include:

  • instability when walking
  • changes in coordination that primarily affect the trunk or head and not the limbs
  • nodding or other unusual head movements
  • unusual eye movements, such as involuntarily darting from side to side
  • slow or slurred speech
  • changes in mood, behavior, or personality
  • headaches
  • nausea or vomiting

Some of the symptoms of acute cerebellar ataxia can be very similar to those of other brain disorders, such as migraine, stroke, lesions in the brain, head injury, and metabolic disorders. It is, therefore, vital to give a doctor a complete history of the child’s symptoms to help them make a diagnosis.

For most children, acute cerebellar ataxia is a postinfection syndrome, which means that it usually appears after a child has an infection.

Many infections can cause ataxia, but the infections that most commonly lead to this disorder include:

Widespread vaccination has reduced the risk of cerebellar ataxia by preventing many diseases that can cause it.

Less commonly, a child may develop cerebellar ataxia because of another health issue, such as:

  • an autoimmune disease
  • an endocrine or metabolic disorder
  • a growth in the brain
  • malnutrition
  • diabetes
  • a stroke
  • a rare genetic disorder

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A doctor might recommend an MRI scan to rule out problems in the brain.

A child’s symptoms may lead a doctor to suspect acute cerebellar ataxia, especially if the child has recently had an infection.

However, there is no specific test for acute cerebellar ataxia, which means that the doctor will begin the diagnosis by ruling out other potential causes.

They may order the following tests:

  • a urine test to see whether the child has ingested anything harmful
  • blood tests to look for toxins in the child’s blood and to check for signs of infection
  • imaging scans, such as MRI or CT scans, to rule out problems in the brain
  • a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to look for signs of infection or inflammation in the cerebrospinal fluid

Children with acute cerebellar ataxia typically have normal lumbar punctures, but there is sometimes an increase in white blood cells, indicating recent infection.

Acute cerebellar ataxia is not life threatening. In one 2016 report, 91% of cases resolved within 30 days.

If the child has an active infection, a doctor will treat that first. Depending on the type of infection, they may prescribe antibiotics or antiviral drugs. They may recommend anti-inflammatory medications as well or instead.

No specific treatment can cure acute cerebellar ataxia. Instead, treatment focuses on managing the cause and minimizing the child’s discomfort.

For persistent cases of cerebellar ataxia, a doctor may recommend:

  • corticosteroids, which can reduce inflammation and swelling
  • intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, which uses antibodies that a healthy person has donated
  • plasma exchange therapy, which filters the blood plasma
  • medications to reduce muscle spasms

For children who continue to have coordination problems, occupational or physical therapy may help.

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If a child does not recover within a few months, their doctor might perform additional tests.

Most children fully recover a few weeks after the symptoms appear. There is no specific treatment that cures acute cerebellar ataxia, but most children make a full recovery even without treatment.

When children do not recover within a few months, something other than an infection may have caused the acute cerebellar ataxia.

A doctor may perform additional tests to rule out other causes, such as developmental delays, genetic disorders, or autoimmune diseases.

Children who do not fully recover may continue to have gait or coordination problems. These issues may increase their risk of other complications, such as injuries from falling. Long term occupational or physical therapy may help.

Acute cerebellar ataxia is neither life threatening nor progressive.

Acute cerebellar ataxia can be frightening, but it usually goes away on its own.

People should not ignore the symptoms, however, because some other diseases can cause ataxia. Moreover, movement and coordination problems — especially when a child has an infection — may signal another problem, such as meningitis.

Seeking prompt medical care for a child with symptoms of ataxia will make the early diagnosis of acute cerebellar ataxia more likely, allowing the doctor to treat any underlying infections. Diagnosis and treatment can ease a child’s anxiety about their condition, as well as reducing their symptoms.

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