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What Is Encephalopathy?

Physicians use MRIs and other diagnostic tests to detect swelling and other abnormalities in the patient's brain.
MRI tests are often used to diagnose patients suspected of having encephalopathy.
A person who has a disease that deprives the brain of oxygen may lapse into a coma quickly and may even die.
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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2014
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If a person has disease, damage, or malfunctioning of the brain, he is normally diagnosed with encephalopathy. It is not a specific disease, but rather a way to describe any brain issues that involve structure or function problems. Generally, a person with encephalopathy will experience mental changes, which can be minor or severe. Often, physical symptoms, such as impaired coordination, will occur as well.

There is a wide range of symptoms a person may have when he develops encephalopathy. Most frequently, a person with this condition will experience an altered mental state. For example, he may have difficulty paying attention or exhibit a lack of good judgment. In some cases, a person with this condition becomes extremely lethargic or seems demented.

Some cases of encephalopathy present with such physical symptoms as poor coordination, muscle twitching, tremors, or seizures. A patient may even fall into a coma. The severity of the symptoms a person experiences is often directly related to the cause of the condition. A person who has a case of minor brain damage may have muscle twitches as a main symptom, for example. On the other hand, a person who has a disease that deprives the brain of oxygen may lapse into a coma quickly and may even die.

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Doctors use many different types of tests to diagnose a person with encephalopathy. Often, they start by testing for a primary disease or condition, such as liver disease or a blood infection, that is causing the encephalopathy. Among the commonly used tests are those that gauge a person’s level of alertness and coordination. Doctors may also use blood and metabolic tests to diagnose the condition and may examine body cultures for infections, parasites, and signs of illegal or illicit drug use. Sometimes kidney function tests are used as well.

Diagnostic imaging tests are often used to diagnose patients. For example, a doctor may order computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests in the hopes of detecting any swelling of the brain and abnormalities of the brain tissue. These tests may help in the identification of certain infections as well. Ultrasounds may be used to evaluate a person’s blood flow as well as to look for abscesses. Sometimes electroencephalograms (EEGs) are used to assess a person’s brain wave patterns and evaluate brain damage.

Treatment for encephalopathy depends on what has caused the condition and the severity of the symptoms. Often, it involves treating a primary or underlying condition in addition to the symptoms caused by brain damage or disease. Unfortunately, some types of brain damage and encephalopathy-related mental changes are permanent and untreatable.

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