Resolved External Ophthalmoplegia and Hearing Loss in Wernicke's Encephalopathy With Thiamine Replacement

J Neuroophthalmol. 2021 Dec 1;41(4):e655-e660. doi: 10.1097/WNO.0000000000001057.


Background: Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is classically described by a clinical triad consisting of confusion, ataxia, and ophthalmoplegia, but recent reports emphasize a history of malnutrition along with 2 elements of the WE triad (Caine's criteria) to enhance diagnostic sensitivity. The ophthalmoplegia, vestibular, and auditory expeditious improvement with intravenous thiamine usually confirms the diagnosis; serum levels generally provide additional diagnostic certainty.

Methods: Here, we discuss the case of a woman with a distant history of gastric sleeve, poor nutrition and protracted vomiting, who developed acute confusion, imbalance, near-total external ophthalmoplegia (EO), and hearing loss. The baseline thiamine level was 28 πmol/L (Normal: 70-180 πmol/L). We performed serial neurological, vestibular, and audiological examination to document over 5 days, the effect of intravenous (IV) thiamine, and again at 3 months with continued oral supplementation. We provide serial documentation with photographs and video recording of oculomotor abnormalities, audiometric testing, and a video of horizontal head impulse testing, and imaging findings.

Results: Over the course of 5 days of IV thiamine supplementation, we demonstrate our patient's resolution of near complete EO. We assessed vestibular paresis with horizontal head impulse testing, after complete resolution of the EO. The initially positive bilateral h-HIT showed decreased gain and overt corrective saccades, it clinically resolved by day 5, but video h-HIT testing demonstrated persistent decreased horizontal vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) gain and covert horizontal saccades, which persisted at the 3-month examination. By contrast, the vertical VOR gain was normal without corrective saccades. Bedside audiometry completed during the acute phase demonstrated severely restricted auditory speech comprehension, which normalized 3 months later. Severe truncal ataxia improved as well.

Conclusions: This case is an example of how awareness of the variations in the clinical presentation of WE can be crucial in achieving an early diagnosis and obtaining better outcomes. A history of the poor nutritional status can be an important clue to aid in this early diagnosis.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Hearing Loss* / diagnosis
  • Hearing Loss* / etiology
  • Humans
  • Ophthalmoplegia* / drug therapy
  • Reflex, Vestibulo-Ocular
  • Thiamine / therapeutic use
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy* / complications
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy* / diagnosis
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy* / drug therapy


  • Thiamine