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
|Oxygen and Blood Flow to the Brain|
|If the flow of oxygen to the brain is disrupted, it can cause encephalopathy.|
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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.
You or your caregiver will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
To confirm the diagnosis and determine the cause or extent of the encephalopathy, your doctor may request:
- Blood tests
- Lumbar puncture —removal of a small amount of spinal fluid for testing
- CT scan or MRI scan
- Electroencephalogram (EEG)—a test that records the brain’s electrical activity
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
- An organ transplant
Medical support may be needed through recovery, including a feeding tube or breathing support in cases of 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.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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a (Glycine Encephalopathy; Hepatic Encephalopathy; Statin Encephalopathy; Uremic Encephalopathy; Hashimoto Encephalopathy; Hypertensive Encephalopathy; Toxic-metabolic Encephalopathy)
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders http://www.niddk.nih.gov
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke http://www.ninds.nih.gov
Canadian Liver Foundation http://www.liver.ca
Health Canada https://www.canada.ca
Cirrhosis. California Pacific Medical Center website. Available at: https://www.sutterhealth.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-liver-disease/cirrhosis. Accessed February 21, 2018.
NINDS encephalopathy page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Encephalopathy-Information-Page. Accessed February 21, 2018.