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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

  • Alternative Names

    Korsakoff psychosis; Alcoholic encephalopathy; Encephalopathy - alcoholic; Wernicke's disease


    Treatment

    The goals of treatment are to control symptoms as much as possible and to prevent the disorder from getting worse. Some people may need to stay in the hospital early in the condition to help control symptoms.

    Monitoring and special care may be needed if the person is:

    • Comatose
    • Lethargic
    • Unconscious

    Thiamine may be given by injection into a vein or a muscle, or by mouth. It may improve symptoms of:

    • Confusion or delirium
    • Difficulties with vision and eye movement
    • Lack of muscle coordination

    Thiamine usually does not improve loss of memory and intellect that occur with Korsakoff psychosis.

    Stopping alcohol use can prevent additional loss of brain function and damage to nerves. Eating a well-balanced, nourishing diet can help, but it is not a substitute for stopping alcohol use.


    Support Groups

    You can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems. See alcoholism - support group.


    Expectations (prognosis)

    Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome gets steadily worse and can be life threatening. With treatment, you can control symptoms (such as uncoordinated movement and vision difficulties), and slow or stop the disorder from getting worse.

    Some symptoms -- especially the loss of memory and thinking skills -- may be permanent. Other disorders related to alcohol abuse may also occur.


    Complications
    • Alcohol withdrawal
    • Difficulty with personal or social interaction
    • Injury caused by falls
    • Permanent alcoholic neuropathy
    • Permanent loss of thinking skills
    • Permanent loss of memory
    • Shortened life span

    In people at risk, Wernicke's encephalopathy may be caused by carbohydrate loading or glucose infusion. Always supplement with thiamine before glucose infusion to prevent this.


    Calling your health care provider

    Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or if you have been diagnosed with the condition and your symptoms get worse or return.