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Encephalopathy describes abnormal brain function due to problems with the brain tissue. Symptoms of encephalopathy can be generalized causing decreased level of consciousness from minimal lethargy to coma. Encephalopathy can cause abnormal thought processes including confusion, poor memory, hallucinations, and even psychotic thinking.
The symptoms may be evident because the parts of the body that the brain controls may not work appropriately. There may be incoordination and difficulty walking (ataxia) or there may be abnormalities with vision and eye movement. The encephalopathy may mimic stroke with weakness and numbness of one side of the body, including facial droop and speech problems. The abnormalities may not only affect motor function but also sensation. It all depends upon what part of the brain is not functioning.
In some patients, the encephalopathy is so profound that it affects basic brain functions that control wakefulness, breathing, heartbeat, and temperature.
The symptoms depend on the basic cause of encephalopathy and the potential for reversal of the cause. Symptoms may be present and remain constant or they may wax and wane. The symptoms may present once and never recur or they can be progressive and lead to death. For example, low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) may be easily reversed with no brain damage, while profound anoxia may be partially reversible or result in disability or death.
When to Seek Medical Care for Encephalopathy
Any patient with unexplained confusion, altered mental function, coma, seizure, or weakness should access emergency care immediately.
Patients who have known recurrent encephalopathy may have home treatment programs that may be attempted before calling for help. For example, individuals with diabetes experiencing symptoms of confusion or lethargy may have hypoglycemia (low blood sugar); home treatment with glucose solutions by mouth or glucagon injections may be curative. However if these home treatments do not assist and waken the person, emergency intervention may be needed since another cause of encephalopathy may be present.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/19/2016
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