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Am I at risk for Wernicke's encephalopathy?

Wernicke's encephalopathy is a long and complicated name for a brain disorder caused by something as simple as a vitamin deficiency. However, while the cause may be simple, the effects are anything but. The scariest part is that if a doctor does not diagnose and treat the condition early enough, some of the devastating symptoms may be permanent or even fatal.

What causes Wernicke's encephalopathy?

Simply put, a deficiency of vitamin B1 can lead to Wernicke's encephalopathy. Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, helps the body convert food into fuel for energy. Because your body stores very little thiamine, though, a complete depletion can occur in as few as 14 days.

What are the main symptoms?

Wernicke's encephalopathy causes bleeding in some of the lower sections of the brain. These areas of the brain, such as your thalamus and hypothalamus, are responsible for controlling your endocrine and nervous symptoms. This bleeding, if unchecked, can lead to brain damage, with the most common symptoms affecting your balance and coordination and your vision. Thiamine deficiency can also cause lesions on the brain, with the most prominent symptoms including:

  • A confused mental state
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Double vision
  • A drooping upper eyelid
  • Up-and-down or side-to-side eye movements

If treated immediately with intravenous thiamine, there is a good chance of reversing the worst of the symptoms, such as some of the confusion and muscle coordination issues. However, if a doctor fails to diagnose the condition promptly and does not begin treatment as early as possible, cognitive deficits and memory loss are often permanent. If untreated, Wernicke's encephalopathy can later develop into a related condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Who is most at risk for Wernicke's encephalopathy?

Conditions that limit nutritional absorption can lead to Wernicke's encephalopathy. If you or one of your loved ones has recently had gastric bypass or bariatric surgery, there may be a higher risk for developing the condition. The limited food portions that tend to make up the diet of patients who have undergone these types of surgeries may make it difficult for you to fulfill your nutritional needs.

Wernicke's encephalopathy is a well-known complication following these exact types of surgeries. Therefore, typical medical training instructs doctors to immediately perform testing to either rule out or treat a thiamine deficiency for anyone who displays nausea, dehydration, vomiting, malnourishment or other typical Wernicke's encephalopathy symptoms post-surgery.

Is there anything I can do to help prevent Wernicke's encephalopathy?

A balanced diet rich in vitamin B1 can help prevent future thiamine deficiencies. Foods that contain this important nutrient include:

  • Lean pork
  • Spinach
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Oranges
  • Peas
  • Rice
  • Milk

However, studies have demonstrated that, because oral absorption (i.e. getting sufficient vitamin B1 solely from the foods you eat) is generally unreliable for anyone who is at risk for developing Wernicke's encephalopathy, parenteral treatment (medicine taken via intramuscular injections or intravenously) in these instances can be important.

What should I do if I suspect Wernicke's encephalopathy?

If you or a loved one is experiencing the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy post-surgery, you should seek medical attention and begin treatment as soon as possible. However, because a delayed diagnosis may already have resulted in irreversible brain damage, you may subsequently wish to seek the counsel of an attorney with experience in these particular types of cases. If a doctor's negligence resulted in permanent injury, a knowledgeable lawyer can help you hold the responsible parties accountable.

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