A Threat To Coordination?

I have been diagnosed with ataxia. I have developed an unsteady gait and walk into walls at times. Is there a specific diet or exercise that you would recommend for balance problems?

– March 26, 2004

Ataxia means lack of coordination, which can affect control of the arms, legs, posture and, in some cases, speech muscles, leading to slurred speech and fluctuations in volume. Ataxia results from damage to the nervous system, from peripheral sensory nerves up through the higher parts of the nervous system that control balance and coordination, including the cerebellum.

Damage can be due to alcohol abuse, strokes, tumors, head injuries, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, an underactive thyroid, a high fever, infections, and toxic substances such as carbon monoxide and heavy metals. Sometimes, ataxia is caused by drug toxicity, especially from anti-epileptic medications, antihistamines, barbiturates, antidepressant drugs, lithium, and chemotherapeutic agents used to treat cancer. If so, the problem may resolve after the drug is discontinued. Ataxia is also a symptom of several rare hereditary disorders that are most likely to develop during childhood.

Treatment depends on the cause. Even if underlying damage to the nervous system cannot be reversed, you may be able to control and/or compensate for the coordination problems. I recommend increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found in brain and nerve tissue. Look for a fish oil supplement with a high DHA. Start with the normal dose, which is 2 grams daily and quickly move up to 4-6 grams daily as tolerated. You also might take instruction in tai chi, the gentlest of the Chinese martial arts, which may help improve your balance. And I would suggest trying the Feldenkrais Method, which uses gentle movement and directed attention to increase ease and range of motion and improve flexibility and coordination. The Feldenkrais Method can teach the nervous system to develop pathways around areas of damage.

National Institutes of Health is now recruiting volunteers for several clinical trials of treatments related to specific types of ataxia. To learn more about them and find out if you qualify, go to http://clinicaltrials.gov/search/term=Ataxia.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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