Cerebellar Ataxia vs. Sensory Ataxia

What is ataxia? Doctors use the term to describe a group of disorders that cause you to lose the normal ability to coordinate your body movements. One of these conditions, cerebellar ataxia, occurs in large numbers of people affected by alcoholism. However, a second form of the condition, called sensory ataxia, has other common causes. Let’s look at the key differences between the two disorders.

Cerebellar Ataxia Essentials

Cerebellar ataxia gets its name because it stems from damage located in the part of your brain called the cerebellum. Well-known symptoms of the condition include:

  • Nystagmus (rapid and uncontrollable vertical, horizontal or rotary eye movements)
  • Dysarthria (loss of control over the muscles that control speech), and
  • An inability to walk with a steady step or gait

This form of ataxia has a range of potential causes, including:

  • Cerebellar strokes
  • Cerebellar abscesses
  • Cerebellar bleeding, and
  • Complications of multiple sclerosis

However, the single most likely cause of all cerebellar problems is alcoholism. In fact, the authors of a 2012 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that up to 66% of all people affected by chronic alcoholism have an ataxia-causing condition called alcoholic cerebellar degeneration, or ACD. Chances for developing this condition increase along with the level and duration of excessive, long-term drinking.

Sensory Ataxia Essentials

Sensory ataxia occurs when you lose a natural sensory ability called proprioception. Normally, you rely on this ability to keep track of your body’s physical orientation in space. When you lose proprioception, you can’t fully make up for the information deficit with input from vision or your other senses. As a result, you develop symptoms of ataxia that can include:

  • A “stomping” gait caused by inaccurate foot placement, and
  • A loss of body balance that grows worse in poor light conditions

Most people develop sensory ataxia when they experience spinal cord damage or damage in the peripheral nerves that run from the spinal cord to the arms and legs. Potential underlying causes of these problems include:

  • Multiple sclerosis complications
  • Complications of type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • Toxin exposure, and
  • Physical compression of the spinal cord

Alcoholism does not generally play a role in the development of this form of ataxia. Because there is more than one form of ataxia, the specific definition of the condition depends on which form is under consideration.   Sources: U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Acute Cerebellar Ataxia The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital: Sensory Ataxia Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research: Characterization of Cerebellar Ataxia in Chronic Alcoholics Using the International Cooperative Ataxia Rating Scale (ICARS)

Scroll to Top