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Cerebellum Brain Damage: What Causes It & How Rehabilitation Works

medical illustration of brain highlighting cerebellum damage

Cerebellum damage is rare, but its effects can be quite serious. To help you deal with this type of brain damage, we’ve put together this guide to cerebellar injuries.

We’ll cover everything from the causes of cerebellum brain damage to effective treatment methods.

What is the Cerebellum?

The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) is located on the base of the brain, right behind the brain stem.

The cerebellum controls which muscles should activate and which need to relax. It does this by sending inhibitory or excitatory signals to the right muscle groups.

However, if this region is damaged, then this process is disrupted, which will make muscle coordination difficult, if not impossible.

Besides muscle movement, new discoveries show the cerebellum is crucial in several other functions, including:

  • Cognition
  • Language learning
  • Balance and equilibrium
  • Eye movement
  • Reflexes

This means that cerebellum brain damage can affect all these functions and many others.

Causes of Cerebellum Brain Damage

Because of the cerebellum’s location, it’s very difficult for an external force to damage it. However, a strong blow to the back of your head could cause trauma.

Most cerebellum brain damage occurs after an anoxic brain injury or infection. Alcohol abuse can also cause the cerebellum to deteriorate.

When the cerebellum sustains damage, the signals it sends to the muscles become weaker or can cease entirely. This disruption is what leads to the various side effects associated with cerebellar damage.

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Side Effects of Cerebellum Brain Damage

An injury to the cerebellum can lead to a wide range of symptoms. The following are some of the most common cerebellum brain damage side effects:

1. Loss of Muscle Coordination (Apraxia)

cerebellum brain damage makes it hard to coordinate the movements needed to walk

Many people with cerebellum brain damage walk with a wide, staggering gait. This occurs because damage to the cerebellum often affects the ability to coordinate muscle movement.

As discussed above, the cerebellum sends inhibitory or excitatory signals to various muscle groups to produce movement.

For example, to pick up a fork, the triceps must activate in order to extend your arm, which means your bicep muscle cannot fire while this is happening. Otherwise, your elbow would bend at the wrong time and potentially drop the fork. Therefore, the cerebellum sends inhibitory signals to your bicep while allowing your triceps to easily extend your arm.

However, when the cerebellum sustains damage, the timing of the messages sent from the cerebellum to the muscles is affected. This can make everything from walking to using a fork much more difficult. This lack of coordination is known as apraxia.

Apraxia can also affect your facial muscles and even your tongue, which can cause problems with slurred speech and swallowing.

2. Balance problems

man leaning on wall because he has dizziness and loss of balance, symptoms of cerebellum brain damage

Cerebellum brain damage can also lead to severe balance issues. Since balance depends on the coordination of several muscles at the same time, a lack of coordination can affect a person’s balance while walking, climbing stairs, or stepping out of the car.

You might have trouble holding yourself upright when sitting or standing. You also can feel a strong sense of dizziness.

The best way to treat these problems is with balance exercises for brain injury patients.

3. Trouble detecting visual motion

Another side effect associated with cerebellum brain damage is problems with visual detection.

This can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell which direction an object is moving.

Unfortunately, there aren’t very many ways to treat this problem. Sometimes, as the cerebellum heals, it will go away on its own.

Otherwise, you will need to learn some techniques to compensate. An occupational therapist can show you some helpful ones that will let you navigate around your environment safely.

4. Eye movement problems (nystagmus)

A distinctive feature of brain damage to the cerebellum is eye movement problems. With this side effect, the eye usually makes rapid, uncontrolled movements, which may cause your field of vision to appear scattered.

This condition is known as nystagmus, and it occurs because the brain can no longer coordinate eye movement.

Characteristics of nystagmus mainly include fast, uncontrollable eye movements. The direction of the eye movement can look a little different in each person though. In fact, there are three main types of movement a person with nystagmus can experience after head injury:

  • Horizontal nystagmus which involves side-to-side eye movements.
  • Vertical nystagmus which causes up and down movements.
  • Rotary nystagmus which involves circular eye movements.

These movements can occur in one or both eyes.

Nystagmus can also cause poor eyesight and severe dizziness, though for most people their vision is not severely affected.

5. Cognitive effects

In the past, many neuroscientists believed that the cerebellum did not play a part in higher cognitive reasoning.

More and more research, however, is finding that this is not true. Cerebellum damage actually does impact a person’s cognitive functions in the same way other brain damage does.

Some of the areas that cerebellum brain damage affects include:

  • Ability to organize, plan, and initiate actions (also called executive dysfunction)
  • Abstract reasoning
  • Working memory
  • Visual memory
  • Language skills

A combination of TBI speech therapy activities and cognitive rehab exercises can help you improve your cognitive function.

Treating the Effects of Cerebellar Damage

therapist teaching patient how to walk after cerebellum brain damage

Most effects of cerebellum brain damage are a result of poor communication between the brain and the muscles. Because of the damage that has occurred, the signals that the brain sends to coordinate movements do not reach the correct muscles.

Therefore, to treat these effects, patients must improve communication between their brain and the rest of the body. Fortunately, you can accomplish this by activating your brain’s natural repair mechanism, neuroplasticity. The best way to do this is through repetitious exercise.

When you practice a task, even if you can’t do it perfectly, your brain forms new neural pathways in response. After enough time and practice, the new pathways become stronger and the connection to your muscles may partially return. This allows you to coordinate movement again. 

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Apraxia Treatment

Since apraxia after cerebellum brain damage affects the neuromuscular system, the best way to treat it is to activate neuroplasticity through practicing the movement you want to regain.

For example, if you have trouble eating, break down the process into separate steps, and practice each step individually before putting them all together. A sample exercise might look like this:

  • Bring hand down to the table
  • Open fingers
  • Grasp spoon
  • Bring spoon to mouth

The more you practice, the more your brain will create new neural pathways. This can allow you to regain that function.

Sometimes cerebellar brain damage makes it hard to visualize the steps you need to take to complete an action. A physical or occupational therapist can help you with this.

Cerebellum Brain Damage: Conclusion

Cerebellar damage can cause serious problems with muscle coordination. Fortunately, recovery is possible.

The key to healing any brain injury, including cerebellar injuries, is to engage your brain’s neuroplasticity. You need to keep your body and mind active if you want to make progress.

If you commit to doing your therapy exercises every day, you should start to see some improvements in your balance, coordination, and cognitive skills, depending on how severe your injury was.

We hope this guide to cerebellum brain damage gives you the tools you need to make a great recovery.

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