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Keywords:

  • Multiple system atrophy;
  • Cerebellar ataxia;
  • Autonomic failure;
  • Urinary dysfunction

Abstract

Early diagnosis of multiple-system atrophy (MSA) is important in patients presenting with late-onset cerebellar ataxia because it has a less favourable prognosis than other degenerative ataxic disorders. We report cerebellar presentation of MSA in a series of 16 patients, 3 of whom later developed parkinsonism. Two-thirds of them had early evidence of impaired postural reflexes with a history of recurrent falls. Some of these had a narrow-based, unsteady gait, unlike the more classic broad-based gait ataxia of cerebellar disease. On review of the patients' histories, genitourinary dysfunction (particularly impotence) was present at the onset of, or preceding, cerebellar ataxia in 60% of patients, but this had often been attributed to age, or to urological or gynaecological causes. External striated anal or urethral sphincter electromyography (EMG) demonstrated features of chronic denervation and reinnervation in 14 (93%) of 15 patients, consistent with degeneration in Onuf's nucleus as occurs in MSA. Autonomic function tests were abnormal in 9 (64%) of 14 patients. Our data suggest that close enquiry into genitourinary function and analysis of the gait disorder can be useful pointers to a diagnosis of MSA in patients with an unexplained adult-onset progressive cerebellar syndrome, and that sphincter EMG is the most useful investigation in this context.