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Ataxia in Stroke Patients: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

treating ataxia in stroke patients with balance exercises

Although rare, ataxia in stroke patients can significantly affect one’s mobility due to impairments in balance and coordination.

To help you better understand how ataxia can affect your life after stroke, we’ve put together a guide outlining its causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Causes of Ataxia in Stroke Patients

what causes ataxia in stroke patients

Ataxia in stroke patients is caused when a blood vessel in the cerebellum gets blocked (ischemic stroke) or ruptures (hemorrhagic stroke).

When a stroke occurs, blood supply to that area of the brain is disrupted.

Blood is rich in oxygen and other essential nutrients that promote healthy neuron activity. Without it, brain cells start to die and functional impairments occur.

Symptoms of Ataxia in Stroke Patients

impaired balance and coordination due to ataxia after cerebellar stroke

©iStock.com/Ridofranz

Ataxia is one of the most common side effects of cerebellar stroke.

The cerebellum is primarily responsible for maintaining balance and coordination.

Unlike strokes to the cerebrum, cerebellum strokes will affect the same (ipsilateral) side of the body. For example, damage to the right hemisphere of the cerebellum can cause poor coordination in the right hand and arm.

Stroke patients with ataxia may experience:

  • difficulties with functions that require fine motor skills (ex. writing or using silverware)
  • intention tremors (increased shaking as you reach for an object)
  • poor trunk control
  • dizziness
  • increased risk of falling
  • wide-based walking pattern
  • slow or clumsy movements
  • slurred speech
  • impaired eye movement control

As you can see, ataxia can affect a variety of functions. Therefore, it’s essential to seek effective management interventions to maximize quality of life after stroke.

Rehabilitation for Ataxia After Stroke

Treating ataxia in stroke patients relies heavily on neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself so that functions affected by stroke can be recovered.

The best way to optimize neuroplasticity is through massed practice.

The more you repeat a function, the stronger the neural pathways for it become.

This can be applied to all types of skills and functions. So regardless of what kind of symptoms you’re experiencing after stroke, repetition is key.

1. Physical Therapy

walking with ataxia after stroke

©iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia

At physical therapy, you’ll work on improving your balance and coordination with exercise.

Individuals with ataxia will likely work on strengthening their core muscles for better sitting, standing, and walking balance.

Many stroke survivors with ataxia walk with a wide-based gait to avoid falling. Gait training interventions like weight-bearing treadmills can help correct the walking pattern by reducing tension on the joints and strengthening underused muscles.

Check out these 13 balance-boosting exercises for stroke survivors »

2. Occupational Therapy

At occupational therapy, you’ll work on improving your fine-motor skills by practicing activities of daily living like brushing your teeth, eating, and getting dressed.

An occupational therapist will assess how severe your ataxia is and teach you how to use adaptive tools if necessary.

Occupational therapy will teach you how to practically apply the improved mobility you gained from PT to your everyday life.  

Discover occupational therapy exercises you can work on at home »

3. Speech Therapy

speech therapy for slurred speech due to ataxia

If ataxia is causing your speech to slur, speech therapy can help improve your articulation.

Speech therapy activities are designed to help strengthen the muscles around your mouth to promote clear speech delivery.

4. Ataxia Rehab at Home

While rehabilitation therapies are effective, the repetitions you perform in those sessions are not enough to optimize neuroplasticity.  You need to also practice at home.

We get it, it’s hard to stay motivated when you have to repeat the same exercise over and over.

Luckily, home rehab devices like the FitMi and MusicGlove make it easy to perform the repetitions you need.

fitmi home rehab to improve balance after stroke

The FitMi is ideal for stroke patients whose ataxia obstructs their leg, arm, or trunk functions. It challenges you to perform exercises specifically designed by PTs and OTs to improve mobility after stroke.

musicglove to boost hand coordination after ataxic cerebellar stroke

If your ataxia only affects your fine motor skills, MusicGlove is ideal for recovering precision. It combines music, gaming, and hand therapy for the ultimate hand rehabilitation experience.

Both the FitMi and MusicGlove have various difficulty levels and keep track of your progress to keep you engaged and challenged at any level of recovery.

Understanding Ataxia in Stroke Patients

Ataxia affects your balance and coordination skills after a cerebellar stroke, which can make it difficult to walk and perform activities of daily living.

Luckily, the brain has neuroplasticity and can be trained to recover functions through massed practice.

Thousands of repetitions are necessary to induce neurological changes, so be patient and keep practicing!

As long as you continue to stimulate the brain with your movements, recovery after stroke is possible.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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See how Susan is recovering from post-stroke paralysis

“I had a stroke five years ago causing paralysis on my left side which remains today.

I recently began using FitMi.

At first it was difficult for me to be successful with a few of the exercises but the more I use it, the better my scores become.

I have recently had some movement in my left arm that I did not have before.

I don’t know if I can directly relate this to the use of the FitMi but I am not having occupational therapy so I conclude that it must be benefiting me.

The therapy modality motivates me to use it daily and challenges me to compete against my earlier scores.

I heartily recommend it!-Susan, stroke survivor

FitMi is our best-selling home therapy tool because it helps patients of all ability levels.

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