Weight-loss surgery linked to potentially deadly brain disease

This article looks at the link between weight-loss surgery and Wernicke encephalopathy, a brain disorder.

Wernicke encephalopathy is a rare and underdiagnosed disease that, if not diagnosed early, can lead to brain damage and even death. While long considered a disease that was primarily associated with alcoholism, in recent years a number of studies have found that weight-loss surgery may be a risk factor for Wernicke encephalopathy. Below is a look at what Wernicke encephalopathy is and how it may be linked to weight-loss surgeries.

What is Wernicke encephalopathy?

Wernicke encephalopathy is a disease that is traditionally defined as consisting of three symptoms: opthalmoplegia (which is weakness or paralysis of the eye muscles), ataxia (a lack of muscle coordination), and confusion. Most patients do not exhibit all three of these classic symptoms, however. Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, vomiting, hearing loss, hypothermia, depression, vision loss, retinal hemorrhage, and sleep apnea.

The disease is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and was often thought to be a disease that mainly affected alcoholics. It is also often seen in other patients who may be suffering from malnutrition, such as those suffering from HIV/AIDS or cancer. If diagnosed early, Wernicke encephalopathy can usually be cured, although permanent memory loss is common. However, if left untreated it can prove fatal.

Link to weight-loss surgery

As mentioned, Wernicke encephalopathy is often associated with alcoholism. In recent years, however, there has been growing concern that bariatric surgery (i.e., weight-loss surgery) may increase the risk of developing Wernicke encephalopathy. As the Washington Post reports, one study found that because weight-loss surgery can result in lower vitamin absorption, the risk of thiamine deficiency increases. While supplements can help reduce the risk, in some patients those supplements fail to prevent the development of Wernicke encephalopathy.

As MedPage Today reports, that same study found more than 32 cases of Wernicke encephalopathy linked to bariatric surgeries. However, there are likely to be far more since Wernicke encephalopathy is considered to be underdiagnosed. The researchers note that while Wernicke encephalopathy is rare for post-bariatric surgery patients, because the disease is curable if caught early it needs to be taken seriously. Of the patients studied, some developed permanent motor skill and memory problems.

Talking to an attorney

All surgeries include significant risk factors and if patients are not made aware of what those risk factors are beforehand then their health could be put in danger. Those who may have been harmed by a medical professional's negligence should get in touch with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can help clients understand what rights they may have, including the possibility of pursuing compensation for the harm they may have needlessly been exposed to.