If you have ataxia, your doctor will look for a treatable cause. Besides conducting a physical exam and a neurological exam, including checking your memory and concentration, vision, hearing, balance, coordination, and reflexes, your doctor might request laboratory tests, including:
- Imaging studies. A CT scan or MRI of your brain might help determine potential 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, that could be pressing on your cerebellum.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A needle is inserted into your lower back (lumbar region) between two lumbar bones (vertebrae) to remove a 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 you or your child has the gene mutation that causes one of the hereditary ataxic conditions. Gene tests are available for many but not all of the hereditary ataxias.
There's no treatment specifically for ataxia. In some cases, treating the underlying cause resolves the ataxia, such as stopping medications that cause it. In other cases, such as ataxia that results from chickenpox or other viral infections, it's likely to resolve on its own. Your doctor might recommend treatment to manage symptoms, such as depression, stiffness, tremor, fatigue or dizziness, or suggest adaptive devices or therapies to help with your ataxia.
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
Research has shown that transcranial magnetic stimulation may help improve gait and postural control in people with ataxia, but more research is needed. Some studies have indicated that aerobic exercise also may be beneficial for some people with idiopathic ataxic syndromes.
Coping and support
The challenges you face when living with ataxia or having a child with the condition might make you feel alone or lead to depression and anxiety. Talking to a counselor or therapist might help. Or you might find encouragement and understanding in a support group, either for ataxia or for your underlying condition, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Although support groups aren't for everyone, they can be good sources of information. Group members often know about the latest treatments and tend to share their own experiences. If you're interested, your doctor might be able to recommend a group in your area.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. In some cases, your doctor may refer you 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.
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 to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, such as:
- Are your symptoms continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- 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?
What you can do in the meantime
Don't drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, which can make your ataxia worse.