Spinocerebellar ataxia. Sounds scary doesn't it? If you, or a friend or loved one, has been diagnosed with the condition you might be wondering what it's all about. Let's try to explain without too much medical jargon.
The Spinocerebellar tract is a collection of fibres that originate in the spinal column and carry signals to the brain about the position of your limbs and joints. It's part of the body's command and control system. Ataxia affects the spinocerebellar tract and screws up the quality of these signals. As a result sufferers from the condition tend to become clumsy and uncoordinated.
This can result in unsteady movement and poor hand-eye coordination, the condition can also affect speech. Over time sufferers may lose all physical control yet they retain their full mental capacity making it a particularly cruel affliction.
Problems with the spinocerebellar tract are genetic, which means they're passed on from the parents. Only one parent needs to have the abnormal gene for a child to have a risk of developing the condition. There are more than 60 different forms of spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) which makes it hard to identify as there's no single test to spot all forms. The first gene responsible for spinocerebellar ataxia was identified in 1993. With each subsequent gene scientists have been able to pinpoint the symptoms which characterise it.
Problems with the spinocerebellar tract are progressive - which means it gets worse over time - and irreversible, so treatments are usually aimed at easing the symptoms. Not all types of ataxia cause equally severe problems. Therapy and medication can help with symptoms like stiffness and tremors. Sufferers may struggle to perform daily tasks, but with therapy can be helped to carry out self care. This treatment can also help to delay further deterioration.
Physical therapy through the use of exercise programmes can help with balance and movement. Exercises are used to maintain movement and muscle tone, research has shown that in mild states of the disease this can lead to an improvement in balance and control.
Occupational therapy can help too by providing aids to help sufferers with their everyday living. This could include providing walkers or sticks to assist mobility. It could also mean supplying devices to help with day-to-day tasks like eating and writing where the sufferer has restricted movement. Speech therapists can also be used to assist SCA sufferers with communication.
Although there's no cure for SCA, and much we don't yet understand about it, various treatments and therapies can help sufferers to have a reasonable quality of life. Research into the condition is ongoing both in terms of improving treatment and in the hope of finding a cure.
Make no mistake SCA is a serious condition, but by understanding its causes, symptoms and how it can be treated, you can help people with it to keep on leading a normal life for as long as possible.