Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and Medical Malpractice

Wernicke's Encephalopathy
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A brain disorder that can be caused due to vitamin deficiency, Wernicke’s Encephalopathy can have a devastating impact on your health. It is important for a doctor to diagnose Wernicke’s disease in its early stages; failing to do so can have long-lasting implications on one’s health and could lead to permanent brain damage. 

What are Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy is the name given to a degenerative brain disorder that can take place due to the deficiency of vitamin B1. Wernicke’s can affect the brain’s lower parts, leading to abnormalities in eye movement, confusion, and voluntary movement. Most commonly, the lower part of the brain bleeds due to the disease and can cause lesions. 


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Korsakoff Syndrome is a brain disorder that specifically targets the part of the brain responsible for memory. The syndrome also sees varying degrees of damage to the nerve cells located in the spinal cord and brain.

Difference between Wernicke’s and Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome is the name given to the same brain disease at different stages. The initial diagnosis of brain disorder affecting parts of the lower brain is known as Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. However, as a patient’s condition deteriorates, symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome start to show. Permanent damage to the parts of the brain that involve memory is seen due to Korsakoff syndrome. 

How is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Diagnosed?

Knowing the right way to diagnose Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be crucial for effective treatment. Doctors use a physical examination to diagnose the syndrome. This includes information about yourself, responsiveness in your eyes, and checking vital signs. In the case that the doctor is not satisfied, they may also ask for a blood test to analyze thiamine levels. 


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What Are the Clinical Signs of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy? 

Thiamine deficiency can lead to multiple acute symptoms that are commonly referred to as Wernicke’s Syndrome. Late diagnosis or prolonged treatment of the said symptoms can cause Korsakoff disease or WKS.

Three main signs or symptoms can be used to diagnose a patient with WKS initially. Neurological disease can be observed through any of the three symptoms below. In the case of more than one symptom, the chances of having Wernicke’s increases exponentially. 

Changes in Mental Status

One of the first changes in a patient’s behavior with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy is the feeling of confusion. The patient may feel disorientated or confused, which is a mild symptom associated with WKS. While in extreme conditions, the patient may face delirium or even go into a coma.

Lack of Voluntary Movement Coordination

Those affected with WKS may find walking or standing upright difficult without support or help. This can be one of the earlier symptoms and may cause the patient to be slow or unsteady.


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Abnormalities in Eye Movement

Doctors often diagnose patients with cases of involuntary movements of the eye and even paralysis of eye muscles. While at the same time, double vision and rapid eye movements are also common.

Common Causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome could be caused by medical malpractice, especially if the patient was in medical care. The failure to diagnose the syndrome or check thiamine levels while under observation is medical malpractice. Any of the reasons mentioned below has room for negligence by the care staff, which is medical malpractice. 

Vomiting or Bulimia

Anyone with a case of episodes of vomiting or nausea is prone to thiamine deficiency. This includes someone who is bulimic, a woman going through pregnancy, or someone ill in medical care. In the case of severe vomiting, it becomes the care staff’s job to maintain the patient’s thiamine levels.

Bariatric Weight Loss Surgery

Going through gastric or bariatric surgery has the risk of the patient being diagnosed with Wernicke’s. The surgery involves splitting the stomach into two parts, the larger of which is disconnected to reduce food intake. The part of the intestine bypassed is the part of the body that absorbs the most thiamine—not being able to do so after surgery results in the risk of thiamine deficiency in the body.  

Long Hospitalization on IV

Receiving the daily requirement of thiamine reduces by 6x times through an IV. With improper care in a hospital, the risk of thiamine deficiency increases exponentially. 

Malnutrition After Surgery

Lack of attentiveness by doctors can cause thiamine levels to drop after surgery. The evaluation of a patient suffering from any symptoms must be done instantly. 


Alcohol use is one of the leading causes of Wernicke’s in patients. High levels of alcohol present in the liver reduce the concentration of thiamine. This reduces the level of absorption of thiamine by the body leading to deficiency. The lack of vitamin B1 causes the patient to show symptoms of Wernicke’s. This is not a medical negligence case, as alcohol use is voluntary. The intake of alcohol flushes out thiamine from the liver, creating a high possibility of deficiency. 

Medical Liability for Wernicke’s Cases

Being in a medical setting allows the patient to be under observation to stop diseases such as Wernicke’s from developing. An early diagnosis is one of the few things that can stop any long-term effects of Wernicke’s. Unfortunately, there are many cases where a patient suffers due to medical malpractice. A thiamine deficiency injection at the right time can allow life to be saved and stop Wernicke’s in its early stages. However, if the disease continues to develop and goes undiagnosed, then this can be categorized as medical malpractice.

Liability of Doctors, Staff, and Medical Facility

Your doctor or medical needs to diagnose vitamin B1 deficiency if a patient reports a neurological problem. If the doctor fails to diagnose B1 deficiency, it becomes the liability of the doctor and medical facility. A simple diagnosis at the right time can stop Wernicke’s from developing.

Wernicke’s Should Never Happen in a Medical Setting

Wernicke’s should never be a problem if the patient is admitted to a hospital after surgery. The only way a patient can be diagnosed with Wernicke’s while in a medical setting is through negligence. This can be negligence by the doctor or the care staff. In either scenario, you should contact a medical malpractice lawyer.

Who is Most at Risk of Developing Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome?

Recent data suggest that men between the ages of 30-70 are more likely to develop Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome. In cases related to alcohol consumption, the data suggest that men above the age of 40 are more likely to be diagnosed with the syndrome. People undergoing gastric bypass surgery or extended hospitalization can also contract WKS due to doctor negligence. 

Wernicke’s is Often Misdiagnosed

The early symptoms of Wernicke’s are often misdiagnosed. This is due to the lack of attention from doctors, as the symptoms are similar to other conditions and disorders. 

One of the major indicators of Wernicke’s is confusion and emotional responses due to chemical imbalance. The same symptoms can also be highlighted for a psychiatric disorder, which can lead to misdiagnosis. This can be counted as medical malpractice, leading to harm which could have been avoided. In the case a doctor notices a similar symptom, they must pinpoint the exact cause of those symptoms. 

Misdiagnosed Thiamine Deficiency Can Have Life-Threatening Results

Misdiagnosing a neurological disease can permanently affect a patient’s life. Thiamine deficiency can force a patient into a coma in extreme cases. At the same time, it can also cause lesions on the lower part of the brain due to bleeding. Misdiagnosing thiamine deficiency can also lead to a loss of memory. 

The syndrome can also cause delirium and hallucinations, which can have long-lasting impacts on the patient. Medical malpractice can cause a patient to lose the best years of their life and life the rest in treatments and confusion. 

If You or a Loved One Was Misdiagnosed, Seek Legal Help Now

There can be nothing worse than being confused for the better part of your life, especially when the cause is a doctor’s negligence. You must assess your options if you believe that a doctor may be liable for your or your loved one’s condition. 

Consult with a team of experienced medical malpractice attorneys who have previously dealt with Wernicke’s cases. Contact me today to review your claim for free.

Kathy Snapka

Since 1982, Kathryn "Kathy" Snapka has been defending the rights of the wrongfully injured in Texas. Mrs. Snapka is a board-certified personal injury lawyer with a long and impressive career of civil trial litigation that includes several landmark cases, prestigious awards, and countless multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. Her firm's primary focus is medical malpractice claims originating from negligence, defective medical products, and pharmaceutical injuries.

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