• Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

How is encephalopathy diagnosed?

The diagnosis of encephalopathy is usually made with clinical tests done during the physical examination (mental status tests, memory tests, and coordination tests) that document an altered mental state. In most cases, findings on clinical tests either diagnose or presumptively diagnose encephalopathy. Usually, the diagnosis occurs when the altered mental state accompanies another primary diagnosis such as chronic liver disease, kidney failure, anoxia, or many other diagnoses.

Consequently, physicians may utilize several different tests at the same time to diagnose both the primary condition (the cause of encephalopathy) and the encephalopathy itself. This approach to diagnosis is done by most physicians, because encephalopathy is a complication that occurs because of a primary underlying health problem. The most frequently utilized tests are listed below with some of the major primary causes the tests may help diagnose:

  • Complete blood count or CBC (infections or loss of blood)
  • Blood pressure (high or low blood pressure)
  • Metabolic tests (blood levels of electrolytes, glucose, lactate, ammonia, oxygen, and liver enzymes)
  • Drugs or toxin levels (alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and many others)
  • Blood and body fluid cultures and analyses (infections of many types)
  • Creatinine (kidney function)
  • CT and MRI scans (brain swelling, anatomical abnormalities, or infections)
  • Doppler ultrasound (abnormal blood flow to tissues or abscesses)
  • Encephalogram or EEG (brain damage or abnormal brain wave patterns)
  • Autoantibody analysis (dementia caused by antibodies that destroy neurons)
  • Review of the person's medications as some medications (for example, cyclosporine) may be responsible for symptoms

This list is not exhaustive, and not all of the above tests need to be done on every patient. Specific testing is usually ordered by the treating physician according to the symptoms and history of the patient.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/29/2015

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