Grandpa's gait abnormality puzzles loved one

Posted7/18/2011 12:01 AM

My 75-year-old grandpa has been having a great deal of difficulty walking for about a month. When he went to his doctor to find what was causing the problem, his doctor ordered an MRI of the brain, indicating ataxia as a diagnosis.

I can't understand what an MRI of the brain has to do with difficulties walking, and I sure don't know what ataxia is. Can you fill in the blanks?


A. This peculiar sounding word implies a lack of coordination that occurs with voluntary movements such as walking. Speech, eye movement and swallowing can also be affected. A person might have difficulty speaking, stumble and fall for no apparent reason, or have difficulty eating. Ataxia can develop rather slowly over an extended period of time or can suddenly appear, causing people such as you and your family great concern.

Incessant ataxia commonly results from damage, loss of nerve cells, or degeneration to the portion of the brain that controls muscle coordination. Several conditions, including stroke, TIA (transient ischemic attack), tumor, head trauma, multiple sclerosis, alcohol abuse and cerebral palsy, can cause the symptoms.

Some forms of the disorder are hereditary and result from being born with a defect in a specific gene that produces abnormal proteins. These proteins disrupt nerve cells, causing them to degenerate over time. Gene defects are progressive and most will cause poor coordination.

There are also metabolic forms of the disorder caused by poisons or side effects of drugs.

Testing for ataxia might include blood work, a CT scan or MRI, or lumbar puncture. If the ataxia was acquired from a viral infection such as chicken pox, it will likely resolve on its own without treatment.

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When appropriate, occupational, physical and speech therapy, as well as counseling to combat possible depression, allow a patient to remain as independent as possible and will work toward increasing mobility. A cane or walker might also help a person ambulate more easily.

Your grandfather may test negative. If so, he should speak with his physician regarding possible intervention with a neurologist or other specialist so he can get to the bottom of the issue and learn how to resolve the issue or how best to cope with it. Good luck.

2011 United Feature Syndicate Inc.