Wernicke Encephalopathy

Wernicke’s is an Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD) condition. It is a neuropsychiatric disorder arising from a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1) which can affect the nervous system and brain.  Deficiency of thiamine in heavy drinkers is common due to their poor eating habits and/or frequent vomiting, both lead to a shortage in essential vitamins.  Alcohol can also cause inflammation to the stomach lining; this can therefore also interfere with the body’s ability to absorb vitamins from food intake.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy reflects a loss of specific brain functions. People with Wernicke’s syndrome are often mistakenly thought to be drunk because of symptoms such as uncoordinated walking and confusion.

Wernicke’s can occur suddenly, sometimes within hours.  Immediate hospital treatment is required which generally involves an injection of thiamine.  Symptoms include

  • Confusion about the time or place
  • Drowsiness
  • Poor balance, a staggering walk or inability to walk
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs
  • Double vision
  • Abnormal, involuntary eye movement
  • Memory impairment
  • Hallucinations

If Wernicke’s is left untreated or is not detected in time, then the individual is at risk of Korsakoff’s syndrome.  Click here for further information relating to Korsakoff’s syndrome.

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