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Wernicke Encephalopathy: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prognosis

What is Wernicke Encephalopathy?

Wernicke Encephalopathy which is also known by the term of Wernicke Disease is a disorder of the brain which is caused due to a deficiency of thiamine or vitamin B1 levels. Individuals who have Wernicke Encephalopathy tend to develop bleeding in the lower half of the brain which includes the thalamus and the hypothalamus which control the vision, motion control, coordination, and balance of an individual. Due to this bleeding, there is damage to the brain resulting in deficits in vision, balance, coordination and movements of an individual. The main cause of Wernicke Encephalopathy by far is alcohol abuse or chronic alcoholism as alcohol leads to deficiency in vitamin B1. Other medical conditions which impair the absorption of vitamin B1 or thiamine also tend to cause Wernicke Encephalopathy.

What is Wernicke Encephalopathy

Diagnosing Wernicke Encephalopathy can be done by the physician by taking a note of the symptoms and having a detailed history of the patient in particular social history of whether there is any alcohol abuse or not, either currently or in the remote past. The physician may also conduct certa9n blood tests, specifically looking for any vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency.

Maintaining a balanced diet and abstaining totally from alcohol is the key to success in defeating Wernicke Encephalopathy.

What are the Causes of Wernicke Encephalopathy?

The main cause of Wernicke Encephalopathy is alcohol abuse or chronic alcoholism. Alcohol tends to depreciate the levels of thiamine or vitamin B1 which leads to symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy. There are also other causes of Wernicke Encephalopathy which include bariatric surgery. People who undergo bariatric surgery are predisposed to Wernicke Encephalopathy as their oral intake of food is extremely low especially in the first three weeks post surgery resulting in depreciation of the vitamin B1 or thiamine levels. People suffering from colon cancer also are at risk for developing Wernicke Encephalopathy.

What are the Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy?

Some of the classic symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy are:

  • Ocular disturbance in the form of diplopia and drooping eyelids
  • Lack of muscle coordination
  • Altered mental status
  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations.

How is Wernicke Encephalopathy Diagnosed?

If a patient presents to a physician with the above mentioned symptoms, then the first thing that the physician does is to take a detailed history of the patient to see if the patient has any history of any alcohol abuse either currently or in the remote past. The physician will then order certain laboratory tests which will include checking the thiamine levels to see if it is less or not. If the thiamine levels are below the normal levels and the patient has risk factors like alcohol abuse or any other condition which may decrease or alter the levels of thiamine in the body then the diagnosis of Wernicke Encephalopathy is more or less confirmed.

What is the Treatment for Wernicke Encephalopathy?

Wernicke Encephalopathy demands immediate treatment. If treatment is started as soon as the condition is diagnosed then there are bright chances that the progression of the condition may be halted. Prompt treatment can also reverse some of the damage that has been done to the brain due to Wernicke Encephalopathy. Treatment is done in an inpatient setting where the patient is observed to see whether the food that the patient takes is being absorbed appropriately. Some of the treatments given for Wernicke Encephalopathy are supplementing vitamin B1 or thiamine intravenously or orally. The patient is given a well balanced diet. If the patient has been an alcoholic then appropriate treatments are given for getting out of the habit of drinking, including psychological counseling. Alcoholics may at first experience mood swings, lack of sleep, excessive sweating but this will go away with time

What is the Prognosis for Wernicke Encephalopathy?

When it comes to the prognosis of Wernicke Encephalopathy, then it totally depends on how far has the disease advanced and how the patient has responded to the treatments rendered. Early and prompt treatment usually results in extremely good prognosis for patients with Wernicke Encephalopathy. If left untreated, Wernicke Encephalopathy may result in brain damage that may be irreversible or even loss of life due to Wernicke Encephalopathy.


  1. “Wernicke Encephalopathy” – MedlinePlus Link: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm
  2. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome” – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Link: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome
  3. “Wernicke’s Encephalopathy” – StatPearls Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430832/
  4. “Thiamine Deficiency and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome in Gastrointestinal Disease” – World Journal of Gastroenterology Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2780975/

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:September 6, 2023

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