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Movement - uncoordinated

Uncoordinated movement is due to a muscle control problem that causes an inability to coordinate movements. It leads to a jerky, unsteady, to-and-fro motion of the middle of the body (trunk) and an unsteady gait (walking style). It can also affect the limbs.

The medical name of this condition is ataxia.

Alternative Names

Lack of coordination; Loss of coordination; Coordination impairment; Ataxia; Clumsiness; Uncoordinated movement

Considerations

Smooth graceful movement requires a balance between different muscle groups. A part of the brain called the cerebellum manages this balance.

Common Causes

Diseases that damage the cerebellum, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves can interfere with normal muscle movement. The result is large, jerky, uncoordinated movements.

Brain injuries or diseases that can cause uncoordinated movements include:

Poisoning or toxic effects caused by:

  • Alcohol
  • Certain medicines
  • Heavy metals such as mercury, thallium, and lead
  • Solvents such as toluene or carbon tetrachloride

Other causes include:

  • Certain cancers, in which uncoordinated movement symptoms may appear months or years before the cancer is diagnosed (called paraneoplastic syndrome)
  • Problems with the nerves in the legs (neuropathy)
  • Spine injury or disease causing damage to the spinal cord (such as compression fractures of the spine)

Home Care

A home safety evaluation by a physical therapist may be helpful.

Use safety measures around the home to make it easier to get around. For example, get rid of clutter, leave wide walkways, and remove throw rugs or other objects that might cause slipping or falling.

People with this condition should be encouraged to take part in normal activities. Family members need to be patient with a person who has poor coordination. Take time to show the person ways to do tasks more easily. Take advantage of the person's strengths while avoiding his or her weaknesses.

As the health care provider whether walking aids, such as a cane or walker, would be helpful.

Call your health care provider if

Call your health care provider if:

  • A person has unexplained problems with coordination
  • Lack of coordination lasts longer than a few minutes

What to expect at your health care provider's office

In an emergency, the patient will first be stabilized so that symptoms do not get worse.

The health care provider will perform a physical exam, which may include:

  • A detailed examination of the nervous system and muscles, paying careful attention to walking, balance, and coordination of pointing with fingers and toes.
  • The patient will be asked to stand up with the feet together and the eyes closed. This is called the Romberg test. If the patient loses balance, this is a sign that the sense of position has been lost. In this case the test is considered positive.

Medical history questions may include:

  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • Does the uncoordinated movement happen all the time or does it come and go?
  • Is it getting worse?
  • What medications do you take?
  • Do you drink alcohol?
  • Do you use recreational drugs?
  • Have you been exposed to something that may have caused poisoning?
  • What other symptoms do you have? For example: weakness or paralysisnumbness , tingling, or loss of sensation, confusion or disorientation, seizures .

Tests that may be ordered include:

Treatment

You may need to be referred to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment. If a specific problem is causing the ataxia, the problem will be treated. For example, if a medicine is causing coordination problems, the medicine may be changed or stopped. Other causes may not be treatable. The doctor can tell you more.

References

Griggs RC, Jozefowicz RF, Aminoff MJ. Approach to the patient with neurologic disease.In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 403.

Lang AE. Other movement disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 417.

Subramony SH. Ataxic disorders and cerebellar disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 22.

Updated: 2/23/2013

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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