Up to 10 percent of children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed with the ataxic type. Ataxic cerebral palsy inhibits balance and coordination.

What is Ataxic Cerebral Palsy?

Like all other types of cerebral palsy, ataxic CP is a developmental disorder that affects motor function. Ataxic cerebral palsy is characterized by problems with balance and coordination. These issues are caused by damage to the developing brain’s motor control centers.

Children with ataxic cerebral palsy have a hard time controlling their movements. They are shaky and struggle with precise movements, such as writing and grasping small objects. Ataxic CP can affect the hands, arms, legs, feet, eyes and even speech.

Causes and Risk Factors

Ataxic cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury to the cerebellum before, during or shortly after birth.

Cerebellum Injuries

The cerebellum is essential for uninhibited motor function. It is central to regulating balance and coordination commands from other parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex, and translating these signals to the central nervous system. It also helps regulate posture, motor learning and communication.

Damage to the cerebellum can be caused by:

  • Infections in the womb

  • Loss of oxygen from placental failure or breech birth

  • Head trauma during or after birth

  • Brain hemorrhaging from fetal stroke

The risk factors of ataxic cerebral palsy are events that increase the likelihood of a child developing the condition. Mothers who haven’t been vaccinated or had poor maternal health are at higher risk for having children with ataxic cerebral palsy. Children who have been victims of abuse also have a higher chance of developing ataxic cerebral palsy because of a possible brain injury.

Signs and Symptoms

The primary symptoms of ataxic cerebral palsy are problems with balance and coordination of motor skills. 

The damage to the cerebellum that caused the palsy may also result in secondary symptoms, such as trouble hearing or seeing.

The most common symptoms of ataxic cerebral palsy are:

  • Imprecise motor skills
  • Trouble walking and balancing
  • Issues with depth perception
  • Tremors and shakiness

Just because a child has these symptoms doesn’t mean they will be diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors usually hesitate to make a diagnosis until the child is around 18 months of age to ensure they make an accurate diagnosis.

Developmental signs of ataxic cerebral palsy in a child include:

  • Walking with feet spread far apart
  • Trouble bringing hands together
  • Unsteady gait
  • Trouble grasping objects
  • Over-correcting movements
  • Trouble with repetitious movements
  • Struggling with speech
  • Slow eye movements

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Treatment

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are among some of the main treatments for ataxic cerebral palsy. These treatments can help children with ataxic CP become more independent later in life.

Physical therapy

Often the first step of treatment, physical therapy combines strength and flexibility exercises with massage therapy and orthotic devices, such as splints and casts. Orthotic devices are helpful when it comes to walking and posture by providing children with balance and stability.

The overall goal of physical therapy is to help children manage their movement problems and become more independent. In children with ataxic CP, it may be difficult to balance or control reflexes. Physical therapists use various exercises when working with children who have this type of cerebral palsy to prevent muscles that are not used regularly from growing weak or shrinking.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy can help improve problems with balance or coordination in children with ataxic cerebral palsy while increasing their upper body strength. The main goal of occupational therapy is to provide a child with ataxic CP with the skills they need to perform daily tasks on their own and decrease the use of assistive devices.

An occupational therapist will typically use various exercises to evaluate a child’s ability to perform daily tasks and age-appropriate activities. These exercises may also improve issues with strength, hand-eye coordination, sensory processing skills and playing with children their age.

Speech therapy

Children with ataxic cerebral palsy often struggle with expressing thoughts or emotions through speech, as well as having trouble swallowing. Speech therapy entails the use of articulation therapy, breathing exercises and word association to help a child with ataxic CP to better communicate.

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) will evaluate a child’s communication skills by conducting a series of auditory or listening training tests. SLPs will also use language intervention activities that incorporates books, objects and pictures to stimulate language development. Swallowing and tongue exercises will allow children with conditions such as dysphagia to strengthen the muscles in their mouth and face.

Medication

Many children with ataxic cerebral palsy are prescribed medication as a supplement to physical therapy. Muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety medication, such as Valium, can calm shakiness and tremors.

Medications can also be used to treat co-occurring conditions, such as epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and incontinence. Physicians will typically evaluate the level of tremors a child with ataxic cerebral palsy experiences and prescribe medication based on the severity and frequency.

To find out more information on ataxic cerebral palsy, try downloading our free Cerebral Palsy Guide, which includes 60 pages of in-depth information for children and parents of a child with CP.

Sources & Author Edited: December 19, 2016
  1. Understanding Cerebral Palsy: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Marion Stanton. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia. 2012.
  2. Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving 2nd ed. Freeman Miller, M.D. and Steven J. Bachrach, M.D. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, MD. 2006.
  3. Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Parent’s Guide 2nd ed. Edited by Elaine Geralis.
  4. Chapter 1: What Is Cerebral Palsy? by Elliot Gersh, M.D. Chapter 7: Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech & Language Therapy by Lynne C. Foltz, M.A., P.T., Georgia DeGangi, Ph.D., O.T.R., Diane Lewis, M.A., C.C.C. Chapter 3: Medical Concerns and Treatment by Dr. Gersh. Woodbine House, Inc. Bethesda, MD. 1998.
  5. http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s3/chapter05.html
  6. http://www.brainandspinalcord.org/cerebral-palsy/types/ataxic-cerebral-palsy.html
  7. https://www.cerebralpalsy.org.au/what-is-cerebral-palsy/types-of-cerebral-palsy/ataxic-cerebral-palsy-ataxia/
  8. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html
About the Writer
Kimberlee Bochek

Kimberlee is a writer and researcher who is passionate about helping children with disabilities enjoy a happy, healthy life. She works closely with our attorneys to create content that educates the families and caretakers of children with cerebral palsy.