Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome – Alcohol’s Long-Lasting Effects

People suffering from alcohol use disorders suffer from several medical and psychological health problems. More often than not, these health issues progress into irreversible illnesses that can turn out to be fatal. When consumed excessively, alcohol has detrimental effects on more than one organ system.

The three major systems affected by alcohol abuse are the nervous system, digestive system, and hepatobiliary system. The liver and associated glands work to detoxify the blood from drugs and harmful toxins. As for the nervous system, alcohol not only causes reversible inebriation but also can cause nerve and brain damage.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is one of the most harmful disorders caused by excessive alcohol use. This is the end stage of alcohol abuse disorders and is essentially a state of alcohol poisoning.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

The Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a combination of two different disorders, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and Korsakoff psychosis. It is a manifestation of malnourishment caused by long-term thiamine deficiency in the brain.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a life-threatening condition, the symptoms of which closely resemble Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

The initial symptoms are those of Wernicke’s encephalopathy that rapidly progress into psychosis and may even cause death. This condition largely remains undiagnosed because of the similarity of its symptoms with diseases related to memory loss.

Excessive consumption of alcohol leads to several malabsorption issues in the gastrointestinal lining and storage in the liver, leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and malnourishment. The deficiency of vitamin B1 or thiamine is what causes Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the first manifestation of long-term vitamin B1 deficiency. It is caused by damage to the thalamus and hypothalamus. Once permanent damage has been caused to these two organs, Korsakoff’s psychosis begins.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes a set of symptoms during the deterioration of the thalamus and hypothalamus. These symptoms include:

  • Ataxia starts from leg tremors and progresses to the upper limbs.
  • Staggering gait
  • Slurred speech
  • The appearance of being severely drunk
  • Eyelid ptosis, visual disturbances, abnormal eye movements (nystagmus)
  • State of extreme confusion, a person fails to form coherent sentences and has little understanding of their surroundings.
  • Slow loss of consciousness

Korsakoff’s Syndrome

Korsakoff’s syndrome presents as a set of psychiatric symptoms after an episode of Wernicke’s encephalopathy has already occurred. Untreated Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses to Korsakoff’s psychosis. Hence, if the former is timely treated, it is possible to prevent such an attack.

Korsakoff’s syndrome has the following symptoms

  • Short term memory loss
  • Long term memory loss
  • Inability to form new memories
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Loss of consciousness after the above symptoms or due to hypotension

WKS is a progressive disease and must be treated immediately or it becomes fatal. If not dealt with immediately, the person might fall into a coma and even die.

If Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is left untreated, the person might remain in their unwell state and cause physical injury to themselves because of their lack of balance and coordination, have their social life slowly deteriorate, develop permanent memory loss and nerve damage, and find themselves in situations where anyone can take advantage of them.

Diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

As mentioned before, this condition often goes undiagnosed. If brought to the doctor promptly, a diagnosis can be made upon the following criteria

  • Complete and accurate medical and alcohol use history
  • Physical signs and symptoms
  • General physical examination
  • Serum Albumin
  • Serum Thiamine levels
  • CT Scan and MRI to note brain atrophy
  • ECG

Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

People who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome have to undergo long-term treatment. This involves the treatment of their alcohol use disorder at a residential rehabilitation facility. The rehab treatment is coupled with medical treatment for the physical and psychological manifestations of WKS. Recovery might take months to years.

The major cause of WKS is thiamine deficiency, this is treated by the administration of intravenous thiamine. In most people, there is a visible improvement in a few weeks. Throughout the treatment, the person must completely abstain from alcohol consumption.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, people oftentimes may not completely recover from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Hence it is important to start treatment as soon as possible. Upon discharge, the person is required to take oral magnesium and thiamine pills along with a proper nutritional regime and supplements.

It is important to note that with WKS, prevention is always better than cure. If you or someone known to you seems to be displaying any of the above symptoms or shows signs of an alcohol use disorder, try to seek treatment early on. Maintain a healthy food and avoid drinking on an empty stomach as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by excessive alcohol consumption paired with malnourishment. Addiction recovery services, such as United Recovery Project, offer a great base for fighting alcoholism before the damage becomes permanent. Even for those fighting a long-term alcohol addiction, recovery is possible with a personalized addiction program.

Summary

  1. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by excessive alcohol consumption and malnutrition leading to vitamin B1 deficiency in the brain.
  2. It is a combination of two disorders. Wernicke’s encephalopathy manifests first in the form of physical and cognitive symptoms.
  3. If remain untreated, it progresses to full-blown WKS that involves both physical and psychological symptoms.
  4. It must be treated immediately or it may become fatal. If not treated immediately, the symptoms might worsen and take a long time to be treated completely, even years. If the symptoms persist for a long time, they might not be completely curable

It is important to note that prevention is always better than cure. If you or anyone you know displays symptoms of alcohol misuse, a variety of resources for rehabilitation and recovery are available.

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