Symptoms usually begin between the ages of 5 and 15 but can, in rare occasions, appear as early as 18 months or as late as 30 years of age. The first symptom to appear is usually
difficulty in walking, or gait ataxia. The ataxia gradually worsens and slowly spreads to the arms and then the trunk. Foot deformities such as clubfoot, flexion (involuntary bending) of the toes, hammer toes, or foot inversion (turning inward)
may be early signs. Over time, muscles begin to weaken and waste away, especially in the feet, lower legs, and hands, and deformities develop.|
Other symptoms include loss of tendon reflexes, especially in the knees and ankles. There is often a gradual loss of sensation in the extremities, which may spread to other parts of the body. Dysarthria (slowness and slurring of speech) develops, and the person is easily fatigued. Rapid, rhythmic, involuntary movements of the eyeball (nystagmus) is common. Most people with Friedreich's ataxia develop scoliosis (a curving of the spine to one side), which, if severe, may impair breathing.
Other symptoms that may occur include chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. These symptoms are the result of various forms of heart disease that often accompany Friedreich's ataxia, such as cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), myocardial fibrosis (formation of fiber-like material in the muscles of the heart), and cardiac failure. Heart rhythm abnormalities such as tachycardia (fast heart rate) and heart block (impaired conduction of cardiac impulses within the heart) are also common. About 20 percent of people with Friedreich's ataxia develop carbohydrate intolerance and 10 percent develop diabetes mellitus. Some people lose hearing or eyesight.
The rate of progression varies from person to person. Generally, within 15 to 20 years after the appearance of the first symptoms, the person is confined to a wheelchair, and in later stages of the disease, individuals become completely incapacitated. Life expectancy is greatly affected, and most people with Friedreich's ataxia die in early adulthood if there is significant heart disease, the most common cause of death. However, some people with less severe symptoms of Friedreich's ataxia live much longer.
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