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Ataxia (Drug-Induced): Differential Diagnosis


  • Occurs when a person has difficulty controlling voluntary muscle movements and coordination usually as a result of dysfunction of the cerebellum.
  • The most common manifestation of ataxia is difficulty walking.
  • It can be caused by a number of things, which include cerebral palsy, medications, multiple sclerosis, and stroke.
  • The following is a list of medications that have been associated with drug-induced ataxia.

Ataxia (Drug-Induced): Differential Diagnosis

    Alcohol Intoxication

    • Associations:  Reports of alcohol ingestion or known history of alcohol abuse +/- body sway (primarily anteroposterior sway)
    • Pathophysiology:  Affects the function of the anterior lobe of the cerebellum (or spinocerebellum), which influences our coordination of movement.
    Fluorouracil (5-FU)

    • Associations:  Reports of being treated for cancer
    • Pathophysiology:  While neurotoxicity is overall rare, it does appear to be dose related and can occur more commonly in patients deficient the enzymes, dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase.  It has been known cause damage to the neurons of the inferior olive and vestibular nuclei.
    Lithium Toxicity

    • Associations:  History of mood disorder (Bipolar) +/- weakness +/- fasciculations +/- hyperreflexia +/- tremors
    • Pathophysiology:  Most commonly a manifestation with toxicity (usually chronic toxicity) and appears to be related to a reduction in the number of Purkinje cells and preservation of the basket cells of the cerebellar cortex, changes in the white matter, and change to the dentate nucleus.

    • Associations:  Reports of receiving chemotherapy or history of cancer treated with chemotherapy +/- evidence of peripheral neuropathy
    • Pathophysiology: Impairs normal microtubule formation within the cytoplasm of neurons thereby leading to disruption in normal cell function.
    Phenytoin (Dilantin)

    • Associations:  History of epilepsy or seizures +/- altered mental status +/- low albumin (displaces dilantin from albumin) +/- elevated BUN (displaces dilantin from albumin)
    • Pathophysiology:  Toxicity to the cerebellum inhibition of the spontaneous burst discharges (nerve action potentials) of the hippocampus and cerebellum.

    • Associations:  History of seizures or epilepsy +/- sedation
    • Pathophysiology:  Etiology is unclear but appears more commonly with higher drug concentrations and in the presence of low folate levels, which phenobarbital is known to lower.

    1. Diener HC.  Mechanisms of postural ataxia after intake of alcohol. Z Rechtsmed 1983;90(3):159-65.
    2. Pirzada NA et al. Fluorouracil-induced neurotoxicity.  Ann Pharmacother 2000;34(1):35-8.
    3. Niethammer M, et al. Permanent Lithium-induced cerebelar toxicity: three cases and review of literature. Mov Disord 2007;22:570-573.
    4. Grignon S, et al. Cerebellar lithium toxicity: a review of recent literature and tentative pathophysiology. Therapie 1996;51:101-106.
    5. Scheneider JA, et al. Neurophathologic correlates of persistent neurologic deficit in lithium intoxication. Ann Neurol 1994;36:928-931.
    6. Scripture CD et al. Peripheral neuropathy induced by paclitaxel: recent insights and future perspectives. Curr Neuropharmacol 2006;4(2):165-172.
    7. McLain LW et al. Cerebellar degeneration due to chronic phenytoin therapy. Ann Neurol 1980;7:18-23.
    8. Benabou R et al. Progressive irreversible ataxia after long-term phenytoin therapy. Neurology 1995;45(suppl4):A368.
    9. Munoz-Garcia D et al.  Truncal ataxia in chronic anticonvulsant treatment. Association with drug-induced folate deficiency. J Neurol Sci 1982;55(3):305-11.
    Editors & Reviewers


    • Anthony J. Busti, MD, PharmD, FNLA, FAHA

    Last Reviewed: July 2015