If you have ataxia, your doctor will look for a treatable cause. Besides conducting a physical exam and a neurological exam, including checking your vision, balance, coordination and reflexes, your doctor might request tests, including:
- Blood tests. These might help identify treatable causes of ataxia.
- Imaging studies. An MRI of the brain might help determine possible causes. An MRI can sometimes show shrinkage of the cerebellum and other brain structures in people with ataxia. It may also show other treatable findings, such as a blood clot or benign tumor.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). In some cases of ataxia, this may be a helpful test. A needle is inserted into the lower back (lumbar region) between two lumbar bones (vertebrae) to remove a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid, which surrounds and protects your brain and spinal cord, is sent to a laboratory for testing.
- Genetic testing. Your doctor might recommend genetic testing to determine whether a gene mutation causes one of the hereditary ataxic conditions. Gene tests are available for many but not all of the hereditary ataxias.
There is no specific treatment for ataxia. In some cases, treating the underlying cause may help improve the ataxia. In other cases, such as ataxia that results from chickenpox or other viral infections, it is likely to resolve on its own. Your doctor might recommend adaptive devices or therapies to help with your ataxia. Other symptoms such as stiffness, tremor and dizziness might improve with treatments.
Ataxia caused by conditions such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy might not be treatable. In that case, your doctor may be able to recommend adaptive devices. They include:
- Hiking sticks or walkers for walking
- Modified utensils for eating
- Communication aids for speaking
You might benefit from certain therapies, including:
- Physical therapy to help your coordination and enhance your mobility
- Occupational therapy to help you with daily living tasks, such as feeding yourself
- Speech therapy to improve speech and aid swallowing
Some studies have indicated that aerobic exercise may be beneficial for some people with idiopathic ataxic syndromes.
Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this condition.
Coping and support
The challenges of living with ataxia or having a child with the condition may feel isolating or lead to depression and anxiety. Talking to a counselor or therapist might help. Engaging with a support group, either for ataxia or for the underlying condition, may also provide information and encouragement.
Support group members often know about the latest treatments and tend to share their own experiences. If you are interested, your health care provider might be able to recommend a group in your area.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your health care provider. In some cases, you may be referred to a neurologist.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as fasting before having a specific test. Make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment, and when they began
- Key personal information, including other conditions you have and family medical history
- All medications, vitamins or supplements you take, including doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you get.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, such as:
- When did your symptoms start?
- What was your first symptom?
- Do you notice your symptoms all the time, or every once in a while?
- What seems to improve your symptoms?
- What seems to worsen your symptoms?
- Do you have family members who have had these types of symptoms?
- Do you use alcohol or drugs?
- Have you been exposed to toxins?
- Have you had a virus recently?
For ataxia, basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms?
- Other than the most likely cause, what are other possible causes?
- What tests do I need?
- Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
- What's the best course of action?
- Are there devices that can help me with coordination?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- Do you know of ataxia research studies I might participate in?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What you can do in the meantime
Don't drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, which can make your ataxia worse.