Lathyrism – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Lathyrism is a syndrome that occurs as a result of slow intoxication; the reason for this lies in the excessive consumption of certain vetchling peas over a longer period of time. Known as neuro-lathyrism, the disease damages the nervous system and leads to chronic spastic paralysis.

What is lathyrism?

Lathyrism is a syndrome brought on by gradual intoxication . The cause of the poisoning lies in the excessive consumption of certain peas over a long period of time. Lathyrism appears primarily in the form of neuro-lathyrism. The poisoning affects the motor nervous system and leads to a variety of motor and sensory symptoms.

Lathyrism is particularly common in geographic areas characterized by severely arid climates. It can assume the proportions of an epidemic when, due to unfavorable climatic conditions, large parts of the population are dependent on eating vetch peas and the food made from them (especially flour). Since vetch peas have a high resistance to drought, they are sometimes the only remaining staple food under unfavorable agricultural conditions.

While lathyrism tends to be a thing of the past in Europe, lathyrism is known to be epidemic in Ethiopia, China, India and Bangladesh. Not only humans develop lathyrism; animals such as horses can also be affected.


Lathyrism is also known as “chickpea poisoning”. However, the syndrome is not triggered by excessive consumption of chickpeas, but by that of vetchling. However, seed peas look very similar to the seeds of chickpeas. If a person’s diet consists of at least 40 percent peas and vetchlets for at least six months, they are at high risk of developing lathyrism.

However, even the consumption of smaller amounts can trigger symptoms of poisoning. Vetch peas (Lathyrus) belong to the legume family and come in many varieties. Some species contain so-called lathyrogenic amino acids , especially in the seeds . These are poisonous and trigger the disease in humans. The propionitrile derivatives of the plant have a neurotoxic effect: they damage the motor nerve fibers that transmit the signals for contraction or relaxation from the nervous system to the muscles.

By disrupting signal transmission, the propionitrile derivatives impair the functioning of the musculoskeletal system: the nerve fibers transmit the commands from the central nervous system either incompletely or not at all, or incorrect signals are produced that lead to unintended muscle contractions. These involuntary movements are beyond the control of the person concerned.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Lathyrus poisoning causes characteristic symptoms such as pain, limb twitching and spasms of the extremities. Weak or stiff, immobile legs are also symptoms of lathyrism. Another feature of the disease is so-called paraesthesia . These are false sensations such as tingling , itching , and the perception of cold or heat that are not based on an actual stimulus.

In rarer cases, the disturbed neuronal transmission can also lead to a tremor of the arms. In the case of a tremor, the person affected suffers from a rhythmic twitching, in this case in the muscles of the arms. In some cases, sufferers can temporarily suppress the tremor, but not completely or permanently. Tremor is not unique to lathyrism; it is a potential symptom of numerous diseases.

A tremor due to lathyrism is a so-called toxic tremor caused by poisoning. In lathyrism, sensory disturbances (hypaesthesia) can also manifest themselves. These are disturbances in the perception of touch and pressure on the skin. In addition, the perception of temperature, pain and position can be impaired. Acute gastrointestinal problems and bladder dysfunction can also occur as part of lathyrism.

Diagnosis & disease progression

A good anamnesis plays a decisive role for a correct diagnosis. Without treatment of lathyrism, the symptoms described above may worsen. In the later course of the disease, paraspasticity may occur: a spastic paralysis of both legs. Another potential consequence of lathyrism is blindness in the form of retrobulbar neuritis. This is inflammation of the optic nerve behind the eyeball that causes blindness .


In most cases, lathyrism is diagnosed very late. The reason for this is that the symptoms only become noticeable over time and are not particularly characteristic of this disease. In most cases, those affected suffer from cramps and involuntary muscle twitching.

Sometimes the legs can only be moved with difficulty and appear very stiff. The patient’s quality of life is significantly reduced and restricted by lathyrism. There is also itching and tingling in different parts of the body. Patient perception is also negatively impacted by this disease.

It is not uncommon for stomach and bowel problems to occur and those affected suffer from bladder restrictions. In the worst case, if the lathyrism is not treated, the patient may die. A direct treatment of the complaints is often not possible.

As a rule, with lathyrism, the sufferer must abstain from the sacred ingredient and stop eating the beans. In most cases, this can limit the symptoms. Life expectancy is usually only reduced if consumption is not restricted and people continue to eat the beans or seeds.

When should you go to the doctor?

A number of characteristic symptoms occur with lathyrism. If limb twitching, cramps, or unusual pain are noticed, a doctor should be consulted. The same applies to weak and immobile or stiff legs. If these symptoms are accompanied by paraesthesia, there may be a serious medical condition that needs to be investigated. People who experience repeated twitching or find that these symptoms are increasing should speak to their family doctor immediately . At the latest when there are bladder dysfunctions or acute gastrointestinal complaints, the lathyrism must be seen by a doctor.

The doctor can clarify the cause and initiate a suitable therapy, which usually means that the symptoms subside quickly. Further visits to the doctor are necessary if the treatment has no effect or symptoms return after a while. The right contact person is the general practitioner or an internist . Allergy sufferers should speak to the responsible allergist and inform them about the unusual symptoms. Children with symptoms of lathyrism always require a pediatric examination.

Treatment & Therapy

When consuming small amounts of Lathyrus seeds, the first treatment to consider is charcoal. The information center against poisoning in North Rhine-Westphalia recommends this measure for a dose of 20 to 50 seeds. If you eat fewer than 20 seeds or eat the flowers of the vetchling, the Poison Control Center recommends drinking plenty of fluids if there are no symptoms.

If symptoms occur, medical advice is required. A specific treatment, especially for advanced lathyrism, does not exist. In principle, however, improving nutrition and taking high doses of vitamin B are among the measures that various sources consider useful. However, the exact therapy must be determined individually by doctors; the choice of treatment method depends primarily on the stage at which the disease is and what therapeutic measures are available locally.

Outlook & Forecast

The timing of treatment initiation is an essential criterion for a favorable prognosis. If there is no therapy at all, the symptoms intensify. A spastic paralysis of the legs is then just as possible as blindness. Non-treatment is associated with the worst prospects. Long-term negative consequences also arise when people have made vetch peas a main part of their diet over a long period of time.

In developed countries, lathyrism is almost non-existent. The disease is primarily found in economically weaker regions in China and India. Historically, people would turn to vetch peas when there was no other food available. For example, it is documented from the Napoleonic Wars. Animals can also contract chickpea poisoning.

If small amounts are consumed once, drinking enough water will relieve the symptoms. The early stage prognosis is generally good. However, previous illnesses and old age can cause complications. Poisoning is not so well tolerated by such organisms. If vetch peas become a main part of the diet over a long period of time, irreparable long-term damage must be expected.


To prevent lathyrism, a balanced diet and not eating vetch peas (regularly) is of great importance. However, lathyrism occurs mainly in times of need and in poorer countries where the affected sections of the population do not have the choice to forego the vetchling as a food.

Green genetic engineering aims to remedy this problem in the long term: the toxic substances in the seeds of the Lathyrus species could be eliminated with the help of genetic engineering. However, the breakthrough success of this measure is still pending.


In most cases, the follow-up measures for lathyrism are severely limited, so that those affected by this disease are primarily dependent on a quick and, above all, early diagnosis of the disease. As a rule, it cannot heal on its own, so that treatment by a doctor is usually always necessary.

The sooner a doctor is consulted, the better the further course of the disease. This disease does not always require direct treatment. In many cases, the poisoning can also be alleviated relatively well by taking charcoal, whereby the person concerned should ensure that the dosage is correct and that the tablets are taken regularly.

Likewise, the intake of vitamin B through food can have a positive effect on the further course of lathyrism and alleviate the symptoms. A doctor can create a nutrition plan that can generally have a positive effect on the further course of the disease. As a rule, lathyrism does not reduce the life expectancy of the person affected.

You can do that yourself

If you suspect lathyrism poisoning, you must consult a doctor in any case. In addition to medical therapy, some household and natural remedies can be used to alleviate the symptoms and discomfort.

First of all, however, the person concerned should take it easy and pay attention to a balanced and healthy diet. In the first few days after the poisoning, the diet should consist of diuretic and laxative foods so that the toxin can be flushed out again as quickly as possible. Foods that contain a lot of vitamin B should also be included in the diet. Dairy products, liver and grain products contribute to the body remaining efficient despite poisoning and being able to overcome the disease without consequences. Furthermore, there should be enough liquidbe ingested, preferably water or herbal teas. Diuretic preparations from the drugstore are also suitable. In the case of gastrointestinal complaints or headaches, preparations from natural medicine , such as valerian , arnica or lemon balm , as well as preparations containing marigold ointment , help .

The exact therapy must be determined together with a doctor who will take into account the constitution of the patient and the stage at which the lathyrism is located.

Website | + posts

Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.