Friedreich's Ataxia

What is Friedreich's ataxia?

Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare, inherited disease. It damages the spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and the cerebellum part of the brain. This disease tends to develop in children and teens. It slowly worsens over time. Unsteady, awkward movements and a loss of feeling due to nerve injury develop as the disease gets worse. People with this disorder may have other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, along with nervous system symptoms.

This disease is named after Nicholaus Friedreich, the German doctor who discovered it in the 1860s. Ataxia is a lack of muscle control. It causes gait problems.

What causes Friedreich's ataxia?

Friedreich's ataxia is an inherited disease. It is caused by a problem in a gene called FXN. It is a recessive genetic disorder. This means you need to get a copy of the gene defect from both parents to have it.

What are the symptoms of Friedreich's ataxia?

Symptoms of Friedreich's ataxia often start between ages 5 and 15. But they can start later in life. They tend to get worse over time. Symptoms include:

  • Trouble walking
  • Tiredness
  • A loss of feeling that starts in the legs and spreads to the arms and trunk
  • Loss of reflexes
  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision loss
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations

These symptoms might be because of nerve damage. Or they may be from the heart problems that tend to develop in people with this disease. Many people eventually develop a curving of the spine to one side (scoliosis) or foot deformities. These often need surgery. Some people with the condition also get diabetes.

How is Friedreich's ataxia diagnosed?

To diagnose Friedreich's ataxia, your healthcare provider will ask about your past health and do a physical exam. You may also need:

  • Tests to check your reflexes, balance, and nerve sensation
  • Blood tests
  • Imaging scans such as an MRI or a CT scan
  • Nerve conduction studies that use electrical impulses to check nerve activity
  • Heart tests
  • Genetic tests to find the defective gene causing the disorder

How is Friedreich's ataxia treated?

There is no cure for Friedreich's ataxia. But some possible breakthrough treatments are being studied. Some medicines with antioxidant properties have shown some promise.

Treatment focuses on easing symptoms and maintaining comfort and function for as long as possible. Options are:

  • Braces to bolster the arms, legs, feet, or spine
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Surgery to fix skeletal problems

Treatment also focuses on treating problems as they come up, such as heart disease and diabetes. You may need medicines for these problems.

Living with Friedreich's ataxia

Friedreich's ataxia tends to get worse over time. But the course can vary from person to person. Treatment can often help limit symptoms and keep this condition under control for as long as possible.

As the disease worsens, it often leads to scoliosis or foot problems. You may need surgery for these problems.

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It can also cause heart problems. This is because of weakened heart muscle and problems in the electrical system of your heart. Some people with this disease get diabetes. Follow your healthcare provider's advice to help limit the effects of these problems.

Because of the effects of Friedreich's ataxia on the nervous system and other organs, many people will need to use a wheelchair within 10 to 20 years. Slurred speech, hearing loss, and vision problems can occur as the disease gets worse. Some people might die from heart failure or other complications. But some people live into their 70s or beyond.

If you have permanent physical impairments, physical therapy can be of great help. It can help maintain or increase strength and improve coordination. Occupational therapy can also help. This therapy teaches new ways of doing everyday tasks in spite of physical limits. Speech therapy can also be helpful if speech is affected.

Some people with physical disabilities can feel sad or depressed. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can both help treat depression.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If you have Friedreich's ataxia, talk with your healthcare provider about when you might need to call them. They will likely tell you to call if you notice worsening of any symptoms or if you develop any new symptoms.

Key points about Friedreich's ataxia

  • Friedreich’s ataxia is a disorder that affects some of the body’s nerves. It is caused by a gene defect that is inherited from both parents.
  • Symptoms often start in late childhood. They can include trouble walking, fatigue, changes in feelings, and slowed speech. These tend to get worse over time. Heart disease, skeletal problems, and diabetes can also occur.
  • Friedreich's ataxia can't be cured at this time. But newer treatments are now being studied. Current treatments such as surgery and physical therapy are aimed at keeping the disease in check for as long as possible. Medicines are often used to treat heart disease or diabetes.
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