Real People. Real Results.®

Frequently Asked Questions About Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a treatable condition that often goes undiagnosed and can result in a brain disorder that gets progressively worse, eventually becoming life-threatening. Here are some frequently asked questions about the disease.

What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

The brain disorder is caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1), which is involved in body functions, including:

  • Proper functioning of the nervous and muscular systems
  • Regulating minerals (electrolytes) in muscle and nerve cells
  • Enzyme processes
  • Metabolizing carbohydrates
  • Hydrochloric acid production for proper digestion

Common sources of thiamine in our diet include beef, pork, whole wheat grains, beans and lentils, oranges, rice, nuts, oats and yeast.

What Causes The Syndrome?

The human body stores low thiamine levels, and depletion can occur quickly, sometimes within 30 days. Causes of the disorder include an unhealthy diet, alcohol abuse, eating disorders and chemotherapy.

Dangerously low levels of thiamine can also result after patients are admitted for surgery or other medical treatments. Those undergoing bariatric surgery are especially at risk, as well as women who suffer prolonged nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

What Are The Symptoms?

While many people have never heard of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, medical professionals should be keenly aware of those susceptible to the disorder, especially following medical treatment. Signs of acute thiamine deficiency include:

  • Confusion
  • Balance issues while walking
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Short-term memory problems and mental sluggishness
  • Apathy
  • Coma

Those experiencing any of these symptoms should immediately consult with medical professionals.

Why Is Thiamine Deficiency Often Underdiagnosed Or Undiagnosed?

A recent study by the Mayo Clinic concluded Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often goes undetected by doctors because it rarely meets the classic diagnosis “triad” of confusion, eye muscle dysfunction and problems with balance. However, the reality is that many patients with thiamine deficiency do not show any of these symptoms, let alone all three at the same time.

What Are The Potential Consequences Of Undiagnosed Thiamine Deficiency?

The devastating truth for people with this disorder is that treatment – a vitamin B1 shot – is fast-acting, simple, affordable and has no known complications. Even after patients are diagnosed with the first stage of the syndrome, called Wernicke encephalopathy, the disorder’s progression can be halted in many cases through intravenous injections of thiamine and changes to their diets.

However, left untreated, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can lead to lesions forming in vulnerable areas of the brain, causing permanent brain damage. Vision problems, coordination difficulties, mental confusion and ultimately death can result.

Can I Hold Doctors Accountable For Failing To Diagnose Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Yes. Medical professionals are held to a high standard of care because medical errors can cause permanent harm or even death. That is certainly the case for people with thiamine deficiency that goes undiagnosed and untreated.

If you suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it is advisable to contact a knowledgeable attorney who understands the complex nature of this disorder and deals exclusively with medical malpractice claims. Davis & Davis, Attorneys at Law has nearly 70 years of combined experience handling these cases in Texas and across the country.