Feeling a little dizzy or having a clumsy day are feelings we can all relate to. The human body is a complex system that is constantly running, so it’s no surprise there will be occasional times when it feels a little off-center. When you combine that with the natural growth and learning that happens so rapidly in kids, it can be easy for a child to experience the occasional balance and coordination problems.
However, when balance and coordination problems are severe and occur chronically or never go away, it may be an indication the child has a disorder or other underlying condition that is causing these problems to appear. There are numerous causes for these problems in children, which can be related to the child’s brain, nervous system, and vestibular system.
Vestibular disorders, cerebellar ataxia and developmental coordination disorder (also called dyspraxia) are three broad and common types of disorders that cause balance and coordination problems in children. Each can affect both a child’s sense of balance as well as fine motor skills, so tasks like throwing a ball or gripping a pencil can range from difficult to impossible.
The best pediatric neurology teams will take into account a variety of factors that include laboratory tests, observation, and brain imaging when making a diagnosis.
Symptoms of Balance and Coordination Problems
Symptoms of balance and coordination problems in children vary in both type and severity. Some children may experience mild but persistent problems with tasks like jumping, skipping or using a toothbrush. Other children may have frequent dizzy spells, or may have difficulty learning common activities like walking or speaking.
Developmental coordination disorder, or dyspraxia, affects the process where the brain and nervous system coordinate the use of the different muscles to perform tasks. Children with dyspraxia typically have difficulty with movement, particularly complex movement such as speech, but also simple tasks like waving. Some children with dyspraxia may also have problems understanding spatial relationships, particularly when drawing or playing with blocks.
The vestibular system is part of the inner ear and regulates balance and spatial orientation. Children with a vestibular disorder most often experience chronic problems with their sense of balance which can lead to delayed motor development and impaired visual acuity when moving their head. Frequent or constant vertigo and dizziness are common among children with a vestibular disorder along with oscillopsia, which affects the stability of a child’s gaze and can cause objects to appear to jump.
Children with cerebellar ataxia often have difficulty walking. This is often characterized by a wide-gaited and lurching manner along with difficulty turning or standing on one foot. Cerebellar ataxia can also affect speech, causing problems with the regulation of volume and rate of speech as well as slurring.
What Causes Balance and Coordination Problems?
While symptoms may often appear similar in children with balance and coordination disorders, the causes vary according to the specific diagnosis.
Cerebellar ataxia can be caused either by issues with brain development or trauma to the brain. Vestibular disorders arise when there is a disruption in the normal working of the areas of a child’s eyes or ears that create a sense of balance. Some common causes of both types of balance disorder in children are meningitis, brain tumor or epilepsy. However, any problem with the functioning or development of the brain and neurological system can cause balance and coordination problems in kids.
In the case of dyspraxia, the cause of many are currently not known, though research has revealed possible links to genetic development of nerve cells in the brain. Being born prematurely or with a low birthweight also puts children at risk for dyspraxia.
Treatments for Balance and Coordination Problems
Though the causes for balance and coordination disorders can vary, most children benefit from the training and practice of occupational and physical therapy. Speech therapy is also commonly employed to help ensure the child is able to communicate effectively.
Special education at school that includes assistive technologies such as touch screens are also effective at helping children overcome developmental challenges, and play an important part in their development. Teacher training in accommodating the needs of children with balance and coordination problems is very important and plays an important role in a child’s treatment.
Though medication may be prescribed in some cases, it is not often used to treat balance and coordination disorders directly. However, because these problems are associated with other diseases and disorders, medications to treat other symptoms may be prescribed in relation to the balance and coordination problems.