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You might occasionally think of yourself as "clumsy" if you often bump into furniture or drop things. Clumsiness is defined as poor coordination, movement, or action.
In healthy people, it can be a minor issue. But, at the same time it can increase your risk for accidents or serious injuries, like concussions.
A 2007 study assessed the visual and verbal memory, processing speed, and reaction time of 1,500 college athletes. Athletes with more injuries had significantly slower reaction time and processing speed. They also didn’t perform as well on memory tests. This suggests that brain function, from how information is processed to telling your body how to move, plays a role in coordination.
Most people will have moments of clumsiness, and it’s usually not anything to worry about. You may be able to improve on your coordination with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), like building habits to improve your brain’s processing, according to Psychology Today. This can mean doing things with intention to increase awareness.
But if you have sudden, ongoing issues with coordination, or if it seriously interferes with your health, it could be a symptom of an underlying condition.
A sudden onset of clumsiness can occur if you’re distracted or unaware of your surroundings. But often, sudden issues with coordination paired with another symptom can suggest a serious, underlying health condition.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot forms in the brain and decreases blood flow. This deprives your brain of oxygen and brain cells begin to die. During a stroke, some people experience paralysis or muscle weakness, which can cause poor coordination and stumbling.
But sudden clumsiness doesn't always mean a stroke. With a stroke, you’ll likely have other symptoms too. These include:
You may see similar symptoms during a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or a "mini-stroke." A TIA also reduces blood flow to the brain. These attacks usually only last a few minutes and don’t cause permanent brain damage.
However, see a doctor immediately if you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms of a stroke.
Some seizures can also cause symptoms that look like sudden clumsiness. This is often the case with complex partial, myoclonic, and atonic seizures, or drop attacks. Myoclonic and atonic seizures cause someone to suddenly fall, as if they are tripping. This symptom is not considered clumsiness
In complex partial seizures, there is a pattern of actions and symptoms. A person will typically stare blankly while in the middle of an activity. Then they will start doing a random activity like:
Complex partial seizures may only last a few minutes, and the person will have no memory of what happened. The next time a seizure occurs, the same actions will typically be repeated.
Visit a doctor immediately if you suspect you or someone you know has had seizure or is experiencing one.
Your nervous system, which controls muscle movement, may function abnormally if you’re suddenly anxious or stressed. This can cause your hands to shake or impair how you see your surroundings and do your tasks. As a result, you’re more likely to bump into objects or people.
If you have anxiety, practicing your recovery strategies may help you relax and improve issues with coordination.
If you drink too much alcohol or use illicit drugs, you may also experience clumsiness due to intoxication. Intoxication, which impairs brain function, usually involves one or two symptoms, which may not always include uncoordinated movements.
Symptoms of intoxication might include:
You may have difficulty maintaining your balance or coordinating steps while trying to walk when intoxicated. This can result in injuring yourself or getting a concussion if you fall. Withdrawal can also cause clumsiness.
Ageing can go hand in hand with issues with coordination. In a study of hand movements, results showed that attention in older adults were most likely body-centered, meaning they paid less attention to potential obstacles in their path.
Clumsiness can also begin as a subtle problem and gradually worsen. If you or someone you know has ongoing issues with coordination along with other symptoms, bring the problem to a doctor’s attention. There may be an underlying neurological disorder.
A malignant or benign growth on the brain can also affect balance and coordination. If you have a brain tumor, you may also experience the following symptoms:
A doctor can conduct an MRI or a brain scan to check for growths on your brain.
Parkinson’s affects the central nervous system and can impair motor systems. Early symptoms can be subtle, but may include hand tremors or hand twitching that can cause issues with coordination. Other signs and symptoms include:
Your doctor will be able to recommend a treatment and refer you to a specialist if they give you a diagnosis for Parkinson’s.
Alzheimer's slowly damages and kills brain cells. Someone with Alzheimer’s often has difficulty with memory, has trouble completing familiar tasks, and may have issues with coordination. The risk of Alzheimer's increases after the age of 65.
If you or a loved one develops these symptoms in middle age, and if they don’t improve, talk to a doctor.
Uncoordinated movements can also occur when you're not getting enough sleep. Exhaustion can affect balance, causing you to drop things. Or you may find yourself bumping into things. Getting at least eight hours of sleep each night allows your brain and body to rest.
Health issues that affect joints and muscles, such as arthritis, and medications such as anti-anxiety, antidepressants, and anticonvulsant drugs can also cause similar symptoms.
Trouble with coordination in children isn’t unusual as toddlers learn how to stand and walk. Growth spurts can also contribute as your child gets used to their growing body.
Children who have trouble paying attention may also be more uncoordinated if they are less aware of their surroundings.
If you feel your child’s clumsiness isn’t improving or is worsening, talk to your doctor. Issues with coordination in children can also be caused by:
Your doctor will be able to provide treatment options, depending on the cause.
Dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), is a condition that affects your child’s coordination. Children with DCD usually have delayed physical coordination for their age. This isn’t due to learning disabilities or a neurological disorder.
You can improve the symptoms of DCD by practicing movements, breaking activities into smaller steps, or using tools like special grips on pencils.
As pregnancy progresses, your changing body may throw off your center of gravity and affect your balance. There’s also a greater risk of stumbling or bumping into things if you're unable to see your feet. Other factors that can affect your coordination are changes in hormones, fatigue, and forgetfulness.
Slowing down when moving, and asking for help if you’ve dropped something, are good ways to avoid accidents or injuries during a pregnancy.
CBT may be an effective treatment if you have minor issues with coordination. For example, good sleeping habits can help. But if you’re experiencing additional symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. There may be an underlying condition.
Diagnosing the exact cause of issues with coordination can be difficult. This is a symptom of many conditions. For example, uncoordinated movements and forgetfulness could be a sign of the following conditions:
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and other symptoms. They may also need to run several tests to help diagnose the condition.
Improving coordination involves treating the underlying condition. Your doctor may recommend medication, like an anti-inflammatory medication for arthritis, or exercising more to reduce joint pain and stiffness. You may also find it helpful to slow down and take in your surroundings before performing certain tasks.
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Aug 09, 2016: Adriana Herrera MD, MPH
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