The healthcare provider will evaluate any treatable causes of ataxia through a series of steps. These typically involve a physical examination and a neurological assessment, which includes assessing reflexes, balance, and vision. Additionally, the healthcare provider may request specific tests, such as:
- Blood tests: A blood test can be helpful in identifying treatable causes of ataxia.
- Imaging test: Finding potential causes of ataxia can benefit from imaging tests such as a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). When an individual has ataxia, an MRI may occasionally show cerebellar and other brain structures shrinking. Additionally, it has the ability to identify other curable disorders, such as benign tumors or blood clots.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): In certain cases of ataxia, a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, may be a valuable diagnostic test. During this procedure, a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid is collected by inserting a needle into the lower back (lumbar region) between two lumbar bones (vertebrae). The collected fluid, which surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord, is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
- Genetic testing: Genetic testing may be recommended by the healthcare provider to determine if a gene mutation is responsible for one of the hereditary ataxic conditions. It’s important to note that while gene tests are available for many hereditary ataxias, not all conditions have specific genetic tests available.
Treatment for ataxia varies depending on the underlying cause. In some cases, such as temporary causes like alcohol intoxication, no treatment may be necessary. For others, minor interventions like vitamin supplements for vitamin B12 deficiency may suffice. Because there are so many causes, and each case is different, consulting a healthcare provider is essential for personalized and relevant advice based on your specific situation.
Healthcare providers may recommend therapies or the use of adaptive equipment as part of managing ataxia. Treatment approaches that target the reduction of associated symptoms, such as stiffness, tremor, and dizziness, can also be beneficial.
- Adaptive devices: Ataxia resulting from conditions like multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy may not have specific treatments available. In such cases, the healthcare provider may focus on managing the symptoms and improving quality of life. Adaptive devices can play a crucial role in assisting individuals with ataxia. Some examples of adaptive devices include:
- Walking aids such as canes, walkers, or crutches
- Modified utensils for eating
- Communication assistance.
- Therapies: Therapies can play a valuable role in the management of ataxia. Patients may find benefit from the following therapies:
- Physical therapy focuses on improving coordination and enhancing the mobility
- Occupational therapy aims to assist individuals in performing with daily living tasks, such as eating.
- Speech therapy aims to improve and enhance speech and assist in swallowing
- Some studies have suggested that aerobic exercise could be advantageous for individuals with idiopathic ataxic syndromes.