What are the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy?

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Legally reviewed by:
Steven R. Davis and John A. Davis, Jr.
August 4, 2023

Vitamins are an essential necessity for our bodies to function properly. Your body needs one vitamin in particular, Vitamin B1, to avoid devastating consequences to your health. While this vitamin turns your food into energy for your body to use, it also helps your immune system, especially through stressful times. But a lack of Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, can cause Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is a brain disease that can become fatal.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused by a thiamine deficiency, often from being dehydrated, undernourished or having any condition that causes you to vomit frequently. Thiamine deficiency can happen to women who have severe and persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, because vomiting causes nutritional deficiency. The highest risk of thiamine deficiency is likely in patients who:

  • Have just had gastrointestinal surgery
  • Have just had bariatric surgery

If after surgery, a patient shows signs of nausea, vomiting, dehydration or malnourishment, a doctor should test their thiamine levels immediately.
What happens when a doctor doesn’t catch thiamine deficiency?
If thiamine deficiency is left untreated, it can lead to lesions in the brain – causing permanent brain damage. Wernicke’s encephalopathy can be avoided by early or prompt detection of thiamine deficiency, and the treatment for deficiency is simply a Vitamin B1 shot.
What are the signs of thiamine deficiency or Wernicke’s encephalopathy?
Unfortunately, many doctors tend to look at only a few symptoms or signs of thiamine deficiency, and ignore the rest. Doctors commonly consider three symptoms:

  1. Confusion
  2. Dysfunction of the eye muscle
  3. Loss of balance

In reality, however, there are other signs that show thiamine deficiency that if caught, could prevent medical mistakes or missing a diagnosis that is important to prevent Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Once Wernicke’s encephalopathy happens as a complication of thiamine deficiency, the consequences could be severe and permanent disability, which cannot be reversed.
Signs of thiamine deficiency that could indicate Wernicke’s encephalopathy that doctors should pay attention to in addition to the above include:

  1. Visual disturbances
  2. Inability to concentrate
  3. Mental sluggishness
  4. Short-term memory problems
  5. Apathy
  6. Coma

In addition to considering loss of balance as a sign, doctors should know that loss of balance specifically while the patient is walking is a good sign of thiamine deficiency. Making a medical mistake by missing these signs or symptoms can have permanent consequences. While an attorney cannot go back and change the fact that a doctor missed this diagnosis, an attorney can hold medical professionals accountable for their mistakes or medical malpractice.
Doctors can also miss the diagnosis through breakdowns of communication between medical staff. Patients have suffered because of these mistakes. At Davis & Davis, we are experienced with medical malpractice cases relating to Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and can help answer questions related to an experience you or your loved one had with a doctor.

John A. Davis, Jr.


John A. Davis, Jr. and Steven R. Davis

August 4 2023

Steven R. Davis and John A. Davis, Jr. are experienced attorneys at Davis & Davis, a law firm that specializes in medical malpractice cases in Texas. With a deep commitment to justice that guides their ethical approach, Davis and Davis have dedicated their careers to helping victims of medical negligence. They and their team continue to advocate for clients, despite the challenges posed by Texas's cap on recoverable damages in malpractice lawsuits. Davis & Davis pride themselves on their extensive experience in the field and their readiness to meet clients across the United States.

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