You may have seen an alcoholic gait before. It’s the unsteady, staggering walk of a long-term alcoholic. The cause of the alcoholic gait is brain damage called alcoholic cerebellar ataxia. Ataxia refers to a loss of coordination, making it impossible to control various body movements. Anybody can develop ataxia-related problems that affecting normal speech, hand-eye coordination or the ability to perform any delicate hand motions.
However, long-term alcoholics frequently develop cerebellar ataxia. It’s called cerebellar ataxia, because it affects a part of the brain called the cerebellum. It’s what gives the alcoholic gait. Some alcoholics develop permanent forms of this condition that continue even when drinking stops. Others partially recover after an extended period of sobriety.
What Is Ataxia?
People with ataxia have nerve damage that affects some portion of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The nervous system acts as the control center for the body. It manages both involuntary functions (such as breathing or your heart rhythm) and voluntary functions (such as walking). There are dozens of distinct ataxias. They including disorders called ataxia telangiectasia, spinocerebellar ataxia type 5, and Friedrich’s ataxia. Some of these conditions stem from genetic inheritance. Others develop for non-hereditary reasons, such as alcoholic cerebellar ataxia.
What Is Cerebellar Ataxia?
Cerebellar ataxia is a symptom, not a distinct disorder. The cerebellum plays an essential role in human health. It coordinates the integration of sensory information, muscle movement, and body coordination. When the cerebellum is damaged, many symptoms may show up.
Signs of Cerebellar Ataxia
- reduced ability to accurately gauge the passing of time
- a general state of muscular looseness or floppiness
- loss of the coordination and effective use of the muscles and joints
- a reduced ability to control movement in the hands, feet and eyes
- a complete loss of the ability to make rapidly shifting body movements
If the disease progresses enough, these symptoms will look a lot like the stereotypical alcoholic gait.
What Causes Cerebellar Ataxia?
Alcoholism is not the only potential cause of cerebellar ataxia either. Causes include:
- chronic alcoholism
- viral infections
- multiple sclerosis
- use of certain medications
- pesticide exposure
- traumatic head injuries that produce bleeding in the brain
How Alcohol Affects the Brain Long-Term
Alcohol acts as a poison inside the human body. It damages a wide variety of organs and structures, including the liver, pancreas, heart, bones and brain. Since alcoholics habitually consume excessive amounts of alcohol, they experience forms of this damage that get worse over time.
Inside the brain, alcohol directly damages the cerebellum. Long-term drinkers develop particularly severe cerebellar damage. In addition, alcohol damages connective fibers in the brain known as white matter. They link the cerebellum to the rest of the brain and central nervous system.
In addition to coordination problems, alcoholics experience decreases in their levels of dopamine. This chemical helps regulate normal function in the striatum. The striatum is a separate brain structure which contributes to voluntary muscle control.
Drunkenness produces a loss of balance and body coordination that mimics the effects of cerebellar ataxia. In long-term alcoholics, these postural changes move from a temporary drunken walk to an ongoing problem. Both balance and gait are compromised.
Can an Alcoholic Recover from Cerebellar Ataxia?
A number of medical studies have looked at whether cerebellar ataxia improves when alcoholics stop drinking. According to the results of a study published in 2013 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, abstinent alcoholics may experience minor improvements in their ataxia-related symptoms within 10 weeks of getting sober. However, after this 10-week period ends, there is typically no additional improvement for at least a year.
The authors of a separate study, published in 2011 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, concluded that recovering alcoholics who abstain from drinking for at least 18 months frequently experience both balance and gait improvements. However, the improvements only occur when their eyes are open. In the absence of visual input, these improvements diminish significantly.
Female alcoholics commonly sustain more ataxia-related brain damage than male alcoholics. Despite this fact, the prospects for recovery from ataxia during long-term abstinence are apparently roughly equal for both genders. Even with the benefit of long-term abstinence, some recovering alcoholics experience only limited or minimal improvements in their ataxia-related symptoms.