Encephalopathy is condition caused by diseases that affect large portions of the brain. The disease may affect the function and/or the structure of the brain leading to a wide range of physical and mental symptoms. An altered mental state, such as confusion and sudden mood changes, is often a hallmark of encephalopathy.
There are several causes of encephalopathy. Treating the underlying disease or injury causing the encephalopathy may reverse symptoms in some. Some causes of encephalopathy may result in lasting changes in the brain. If the brain injury is severe and cannot be reversed, it can be fatal.
Encephalopathy is caused by widespread dysfunction of the brain. Some common causes include:
- Head trauma
- Metabolic dysfunction—causes an imbalance in nutrients and electrolytes the brain needs to function
- Brain tumor or increased intracranial pressure
- Exposure to toxins
- Poor nutrition—causes an imbalance in nutrients and electrolytes the brain needs to function
- No oxygen or blood flow to the brain
- Organ failure
- Seizures and post-seizure dysfunction
Risk factors vary depending on type of encephalopathy. For example, alcohol use disorder puts you at risk for Wernicke’s encephalopathy or hepatic encephalopathy.
An altered mental state may include:
- Sudden or progressive changes in memory
- Inability to concentrate
- Impaired thinking
- Abnormal drowsiness
- Mood changes
- Progressive loss of consciousness
- Subtle personality changes
Other symptoms may include:
- Involuntary muscle twitches and flapping movements
- Muscle weakness and unsteadiness
- Abnormal eye movements
Signs that encephalopathy may be getting worse include:
- Progressive confusion
- Progressive drowsiness
Medical care is needed right away for these symptoms.
Your doctor will ask you or your caregiver about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
To confirm diagnosis and determine the cause or extent of the encephalopathy, your doctor may request:
The goal of treatment is to try to stop or reverse the damage by managing the condition causing the encephalopathy. Treatment is based on the cause, but may include:
- Medications—to treat infections, manage related conditions like high blood pressure, remove toxins, and replace missing or low levels of vitamins or nutrients
- Dietary changes—to improve nutrition or manage underlying condition
- Dialysis—to clear harmful substances, like toxins, out of the blood
- Organ transplant
Medical support may be needed through recovery including feeding tube or breathing support with severe encephalopathy.
Many causes cannot be prevented. To help reduce the chance of encephalopathy:
- Get early treatment for liver problems. If you have any of the above symptoms, call your doctor right away.
- If you have a disease, see your doctor regularly.
- Avoid overdosing on drugs, alcohol, or medications.
- Avoid being exposed to poisons or toxins and infections or carriers of infections, such as mosquitoes.
- Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
- Review Date: 02/2016 -
- Update Date: 02/12/2016 -