I have been treating a man with cerebellar ataxia using acupuncture for several years with very good results. I will call him TP for confidentiality. He has a rare hereditary form of cerebellar ataxia. His father and uncles all had it and died from complications of the disease.
What is the cerebellum? The cerebellum is in the back part of the brain that is responsible for integrating sensory perception, motor control and coordination. When your foot moves up a step it tells your body it is moving onto the step and all the muscles needed to keep you upright and balanced are under its control. When you swallow your cerebellum is coordinating all of the muscles that allow this activity that we take for granted. Damage to the cerebellum can lead to loss of coordinated movement, the inability to judge distance, tendency to fall, staggered or wide based gait. Inability to perform rapid alternating movement.
Ataxia means without coordination.
There are many causes of cerebellar ataxia such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, infection, heredity. In hereditary cerebellar ataxia typically balance and coordination are affected first. Incoordination of hands, arms, and legs, and slurring of speech are other common symptoms. Walking becomes difficult and is characterized by walking with feet placed further apart to compensate for poor balance. Later swallowing may be affected and even breathing. It is a gradually progressive disease, worsening as the years go by.
The National Foundation for Ataxia website says there are 150,000 people in the US with hereditary or sporadic ataxia.
When TP started seeing me he had been falling and had sustained multiple different fractures of his feet and ankles over the past 2-3 yrs. He found it was more difficult to walk on uneven surfaces and keep his balance. His legs felt like “wood” to him. He was in his 60′s and already making plans for being in a wheelchair soon. He had been recently diagnosed with a rare form of the disease. He asked if I could treat him. I told him we could try and see what the results would be but that it wouldn’t be a cure that my goal was to slow the progression of the disease and improve his function and balance as much as possible. With that, we started treatment.
After about 6 months of treatment, he saw his neurologist for a follow-up appointment and remarkably his reflexes had all returned to normal! She was amazed and had never seen this occur and told him to continue the acupuncture. Reflexes cannot be faked or changed due to placebo intervention as far as I know. I was amazed but had seen his improvement when I would check his movement so knew it was true.
He was also doing some exercises to increase the proprioception and coordination with the exercise ball that I showed him. Over the years he has had some gradual decline in his coordination and reflexes but he still is not as bad as when I first saw him. He is far from it still. He hasn’t fallen and fractured anything since I started treating him. He is not close to being in a wheelchair. Recently he started participating in pool aerobics and doing core strengthening that has helped him also.
The acupuncture is a weekly part of his treatment program. When we have tried to space it out to 2 weeks, after a few weeks he has a decline in coordination and his legs begin to feel like “wood” again. So he gets treated weekly. Of course we skip a week or 2 every now and then and he sometimes has other complaints for problems that I address.
He is an inspiration to me and constantly reminds me how acupuncture benefits him and those with hereditary cerebellar ataxia and other neurological diseases. Helping to keep someone active with less disability is a privilege and a joy to see.
K Bynum, DO