Wernicke's encephalopathy in a malnourished surgical patient: a difficult diagnosis.BMC Res Notes. 2014 Oct 14; 7:718.BR
Wernicke's encephalopathy is an acute neurological disorder resulting from thiamine deficiency mainly related to alcohol abuse. Severe thiamine deficiency is an emerging problem in non-alcoholic patients and it may develop in postoperative surgical patients with risk factors.
We reported a case of a 46 years old woman who underwent, one year before, to cephalic duodenopancreatectomy complicated with prolonged recurrent vomiting. She underwent to a second surgical operation for intestinal sub-occlusion and postoperatively she developed septic shock and hemorrhagic Wernicke's disease. After ICU admission, because of neurological deterioration, she underwent CT scan and MRI that highlighted a strong suspicion for Wernicke's disease. We treated her with an initially wrong low dose of thiamine, then after MRI we increased the dosage with a neurological status improvement. Despite therapeutic efforts used to control septic shock and thrombocytopenia, she died on the 21st day after surgery because of massive cerebral bleeding and unresponsive cerebral edema.
Early detection of subclinical thiamine deficiency is a difficult task, as symptoms may be nonspecific. Wernicke's disease remains a clinical diagnosis because there are no specific diagnostic abnormalities revealed in cerebrospinal fluid, electroencephalogram or evoked potentials. About this, the best aid for a correct diagnosis is the clinical suspicion and clinicians should consider the disorder in any patients with unbalanced nutrition, increased metabolism or impaired food absorption. A hallmark of our case was the brain hemorrhage in the typical areas of the Wernicke's disease, maybe triggered by the thrombocytopenia secondary to sepsis. It might be a good clinical practice administer thiamine to all patients presenting with coma or stupor and risk factors related with thiamine deficiency. Any therapeutic delay may result in permanent neurological damage or death.