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High Altitude Ataxia—Its Assessment and Relevance

Elsevier Inc.
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.wem.2011.02.001
  • Ataxia
  • Hypoxia
  • High Altitude
  • Mountain Sickness


Ataxia at altitude is reviewed in relation to acute mountain sickness (AMS). The cause of ataxia occurring at altitude is unknown but may be hypoxia affecting basal ganglia and hindbrain activity. Ataxia is an important sign of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) but is less well-established as a clinical feature of AMS. Assessment of ataxia is part of the Environmental Systems and the Lake Louise questionnaires, together with a heel-to-toe measurement. More precise measures of ataxia include the Sharpened Romberg Test (SRT) and the use of unstable platforms. Isolated ataxia at altitude may not be related to AMS or HACE. Age affects ataxia and careful baseline measurements are essential in older subjects before results at high altitude can be interpreted. Testing for ataxia needs to be standardized with sufficient learning time. Ataxia should be distinguished from weakness or fatigue occurring at altitude. Specialized tests have not been shown to be clinically important. Our results above 5000 m showed that an abnormal SRT may be specific for AMS but with relatively poor sensitivity. Wobble board results have not correlated with AMS scores consistently. Other authors using an unstable platform in a chamber and static posturography during 3 days of exposure to 4559 m also found no relationship with AMS scores. Ataxia is a common and important clinical feature of HACE but is unhelpful in the assessment of mild or even moderate AMS in the absence of an altered mental state. The simple heel-to-toe test remains a useful part of the assessment of more severe AMS bordering on HACE.

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