Wernicke encephalopathy is a brain disorder. It can be associated with a variety of symptoms such as confusion, lack of muscle coordination, and eye movement difficulties.
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Wernicke encephalopathy is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. The deficiency may be caused by poor nutrition, problems absorbing vitamins, or both.
Vitamin B deficiency is common in those with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Excessive intake of alcohol is associated with poor diets and damage to the intestines that make it difficult to absorb vitamins. However, not everyone with AUD develops Wernicke encephalopathy. A combination of genes and diet may play a role.
Factors that may increase your risk of Wernicke encephalopathy include:
AUDPoor nutrition or fastingA diet rich in carbohydrates
Gastrointestinal disorders and surgical proceduresSevere vomiting
Systemic diseases, such as
AIDS, renal diseases, infections, and thyroid disease
DialysisEating disordersCertain medications
Symptoms may include: Mental status changes, including confusion, poor concentration, lack of emotion, and memory lossVision problemsPoor coordinationDifficulty walking and sittingNausea and vomiting
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
The level of thiamine in your blood will be measured. This can be done with a blood test.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include: Thiamine supplements—To treat the thiamine deficiency that is causing your Wernicke encephalopathy.Dietary changes—You may be referred to a dietitian to help with meal planning, especially if your diet is high in carbohydrates.
If Wernicke encephalopathy is associated with AUD or an eating disorder, you may be referred to a rehabilitation facility.
To help reduce your chance of getting Wernicke encephalopathy, take these steps:
Ensure that you are getting enough thiamine in your diet.
Daily goals are 1.1 mg a day for women and 1.2 mg a day for menInclude foods rich in thiamine such as lentils, peas, fortified breakfast cereal, pecans, spinach, oranges, milk, and eggs
Limit your alcohol intake to a moderate level.
Moderate is 2 or fewer drinks per day for men and 1 or fewer drinks per day for womenIf you have a drinking problem, talk to your doctor right away about treatment options.
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Last reviewed November 2015 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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