Wernicke's Encephalopathy & Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Victims often have serious brain damage when not timely diagnosed and treated at an ER or doctor’s office.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or WKS, is caused by a lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1. A  thiamine insufficiency can occur before or after a patient is admitted for medical treatment, but patients who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery, weight-loss, or bariatric surgery may be especially at risk. Alcoholism sometimes causes it. Even women who have severe, prolonged nausea and vomiting during pregnancy are at great risk for this nutritional deficiency. Diets rich in carbohydrates may also increase the need for thiamine.

Any patient who presents with post-surgical signs of undernourishment, dehydration or prolonged nausea and vomiting should be evaluated for thiamine deficiency. If left untreated, acute thiamine deficiency can lead to irreversible brain damage.

Signs of acute thiamine deficiency include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of balance while walking
  • Visual disturbances
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Mental sluggishness and short-term memory issues
  • Apathy
  • Coma

An ER staff might see these symptoms and presume “stroke,” which is then ruled out by radiology; the patient may be discharged without the right diagnosis. Treatment to reverse the problem is relatively easy. An IV infusion or a shot with vitamin B1 will replenish the thiamine deficiency and avoid WKS completely. But diagnosis and treatment must be untaken immediately. Time is short. Unfortunately, failures to diagnose thiamine deficiency are all too common. The result can be stroke-like brain damage.

If you have experienced a situation as described above, or been diagnosed with Wernicke's Encephalopathy or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, please contact our office.