Alcohol Related Ataxia

Whether transient or permanent, ataxia can be a symptom for many different disorders. Characterized by a lack of coordination, ataxia is the result of damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for controlling movement. People with ataxia often struggle to control muscles in their arms and legs. While many forms of ataxia are hereditary, alcohol related ataxia is common as well.

Ataxia-telangiectasia

Ataxia-telangiectasia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Temporary Ataxia from Alcohol

We’ve all had nights where we either drank too much, or saw someone else wind up drunk. We’ve also seen what happens to an individual’s gait after a few drinks: they’ll start swaying and stumbling, they’ll have poor hand-eye coordination, delayed reflexes, and they might even fall over. These are all forms of ataxia, and are caused by the alcohol attacking the cerebellum in the brain. Luckily, with infrequent intoxication, as soon as the alcohol exits the blood stream, the symptoms of ataxia subside and the person suffering from ataxia returns to their normal state.

Permanent or Long Term Ataxia from Alcohol

While ataxia from alcohol is usually temporary, an alcoholic can suffer from long term or even permanent ataxia. Prolonged heavy drinking causes damage in the brain that results in ataxia, most commonly affecting the legs. Ataxia that develops from prolonged heavy drinking is known as cerebellar ataxia, and includes many of the same symptoms as temporary ataxia. Those with this condition are described as having “slow legs” and a staggering, swaying gait. Those who drink heavily might also have peripheral nerve damage on the bottoms of their feet caused by alcohol, which makes dealing with the symptoms of ataxia even more challenging, as walking and unsteadiness worsen with nerve damage.

Treatment of Ataxia

There is no set amount of drinks that leads to ataxia, and no exact amount of time for a person to stop feeling its effects. Feelings of ataxia depend largely on an individual’s tolerance for alcohol.

Once permanent damage has occurred, the symptoms will continue to persist as long as the individual continues to drink. In fact, even when someone has stopped drinking altogether, the symptoms of cerebellar ataxia can continue for an extended period of time.

In a 2013 study titled Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers found that alcoholics now practicing abstinence may notice minor improvements after they stop drinking within a 10 week period. However, after the 10 weeks, noticeable additional improvements are not apparent for at least a year following sobriety. In a separate study, researchers concluded that alcoholics who stopped drinking for at least 18 months discovered that their balance and gait improvements were noticeable when their eyes were open. When their eyes were closed, however, the effects of cerebellar ataxia returned without visual input.

While females are more likely to experience alcohol induced cerebellar ataxia than men, it is equally challenging for both men and women to recover from the condition. Even with long-term sobriety, many people see only limited or minimal improvements in their cerebellar ataxia.

If you are suffering from ataxia, your first step should be to seek medical help and an alcohol recovery program. After that, physical therapy can help restore muscle mass, and your therapist can introduce you to equipment that can be used to help with walking and functioning in daily life.

This article was written by Nurse Practitioner Laura Green.  Laura specializes in urgent care, and it keeps her on her toes.  She recommends low cost and trusted urgent care when you can’t get in to see your primary doctor.

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