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Who Is Liable for My Loved One’s Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Written by Tom Crosley
Mar 10, 2020 Brain Injuries, Catastrophic Personal Injury, Personal Injury, Wrongful Death
  1. 1. What Is the Difference Between Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome?
  2. 2. Risk Factors and Causes of Thiamine Deficiency
  3. 3. Signs And Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome
  4. 4. Doctors Often Misdiagnose or Overlook Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  5. 5. Crosley Law: Medical Malpractice Experts

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a potentially fatal condition with life-altering effects for both the victim and their loved ones. Unfortunately, doctors often miss the signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, even after a patient has undergone a procedure with known ties to the condition or presents with known symptoms.

If your loved one developed Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome after a procedure or after a doctor misdiagnosed their condition, you might be able to hold the negligent doctor and hospital financially responsible. Keep reading to learn more about Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and how a doctor might be liable for your loved one’s condition.

What Is the Difference Between Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke Encephalopathy is a neurological disorder caused by insufficient levels of vitamin B1 thiamine. Thiamine metabolizes glucose into energy for the hypothalamus region of the brain. Without sufficient energy, the hypothalamus is unable to produce the hormones needed for proper bodily regulations and emotional control. Wernicke Encephalopathy is a life-threatening condition on its own with drastic side-effects on the peripheral and central nervous system.

Korsakoff Syndrome is a neuropsychiatric disorder often triggered by untreated Wernicke Encephalopathy and also characterized by insufficient thiamine levels. If triggered by Wernicke Encephalopathy, doctors often refer to Korsakoff Syndrome as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Risk Factors and Causes of Thiamine Deficiency

Risk factors and causes of low thiamine often relate to surgeries, medical conditions, and lifestyles that involve undereating or an inability to absorb and metabolize nutrients.

Common causes include:

medical malpractice

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  • Bariatric gastric bypass surgery
  • Alcoholism and other psychiatric disorders
  • Kidney dialysis
  • Eating disorders (anorexia)
  • Malnutrition
  • Gastric or colon cancer

Signs And Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke Encephalopathy can be life-threatening even if it doesn’t evolve into Korsakoff Syndrome. Additionally, the side-effects of Wernicke Encephalopathy can have a debilitating effect on the victim’s day-to-day life.

Symptoms could include:

  • Double vision
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Loss of muscle movement (ataxia)
  • Confusion and combativeness

Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome include:

  • Permanent memory loss (amnesia)
  • Impaired short-term memory
  • Difficulty understanding speech or information
  • Diminished fine motor function
  • Attention-span issues
  • Incoherence
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Storytelling to replace lost memories (confabulation)

Coma or death can also occur from Korsakoff Syndrome — with a fatality rate of 10-20% of diagnosed victims. Studies show that more than 80% of all cases of Korsakoff Syndrome are undiagnosed before the victim’s death.

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“If a doctor does not adequately treat the condition, it could evolve into Korsakoff Syndrome. Korsakoff Syndrome causes various memory problems and mental confusion and can be both life-threatening and permanently life-altering.”

Because of its effect on behavior, cognition, and motor functions, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome often requires life-long care or institutionalization. Even victims who partially recover through thiamine treatment are often unable to work, form relationships, or experience positive emotions.

Doctors Often Misdiagnose or Overlook Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome victims often experience profound mental confusion, which can lead doctors to overlook physical disorders. This confusion can also make communicating with a doctor difficult, leaving family members to speak on their behalf.

A thorough doctor will attempt to rule out all physical disorders that could be causing your loved one’s symptoms. There are a variety of blood tests and scans that can potentially detect Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, including:

  • Serum albumin test to determine nutritional deficiencies
  • Vitamin B-1 test to check thiamine levels
  • CT and MRI scans to detect brain lesions or changes

It takes time to receive the results of these tests, which is why standard practice is for doctors to discuss medical history and lifestyle with the patient’s family. Insight into history and lifestyle can help doctors connect symptoms to a preliminary diagnosis of thiamine deficiency.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment can delay, stop, or even reverse the effects of Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Syndrome. Improper or delayed treatment can cause permanent brain damage and debilitation. Early treatment is straightforward and often fast-working, as a doctor merely needs to give the victim thiamine — typically through an IV drip.

While the connection between thiamine deficiency and alcoholism is well-known among physicians, many doctors do not think to link other psychiatric disorders or lifestyles to nutritional deficits and potential thiamine deficiency.

The ease of treating a thiamine deficiency makes this failure to care for a patient with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome inexcusable and is a sign of incompetence and negligence.

Crosley Law: Medical Malpractice Experts

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If your loved one has been diagnosed with Wernicke Encephalopathy or Korsakoff Syndrome after a doctor failed to diagnose and treat their condition in a timely manner, please contact Crosley Law for help. Our San Antonio medical malpractice attorneys have significant experience handling these thiamine disorders and getting clients the just compensation they deserve.

Contact us today by calling 210-LAW-3000 | 210-529-3000 or filling out our online form for a free consultation to discuss your case.


McCormick, L., Buchanan, J., Onwuameze, O., Pierson, R., & Paradiso, S. (December, 2011). Beyond alcoholism: wernicke-korsakoff syndrome in patients with psychiatric disorders. Cognitive And Behavioral Neurology, vol#24(4), 209-216. doi: 10.1097/WNN.0b013e31823f90c4. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551444/

Vasan, S., & Kumar, A. (16 November, 2019. Wernicke’s encephalopathy. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470344/

Zafar, A. (December, 2015). Wernicke’s encephalopathy following Roux en Y gastric bypass surgery. Saudi Medical Journal, vol 36(12), 1493–1495. doi: 10.15537/smj.2015.12.12643. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707408/

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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