What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder
in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in your peripheral
nervous system. This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling. It can
eventually cause paralysis. This cause of this condition is unknown, but it’s
typically triggered by an infectious illness, such as the stomach flu or a lung
Guillain-Barre is rare, affecting only about 1 in 100,000
Americans, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke. There’s no cure for GBS, but treatment can reduce the severity of
your symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.
What Causes Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
The precise cause of Guillain-Barre is unknown. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of people with
Guillain-Barre develop it soon after they’ve been sick with diarrhea or a
respiratory infection. This suggests that the disorder may be triggered by an
improper immune response to the previous illness.
Campylobacter jejuni infection has been associated
with Guillain-Barre. Campylobacter is one of the most
common bacterial cause of diarrhea in the United States. It’s also the most common risk factor
for Guillain-Barre. Campylobacter is
often found in undercooked food, especially poultry.
The following infections have also been associated with
- cytomegalovirus, which is a strain of the herpes
- Epstein-Barr virus infection or mononucleosis
- mycoplasma pneumonia, which is an atypical pneumonia
caused by bacteria-like organisms
- HIV or AIDS
Anyone can get Guillain-Barre, but older adults and men are most
likely to contract it.
In extremely rare cases, people can develop the disorder days or
weeks after receiving a vaccination. The CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) have systems in place to monitor the safety of vaccines,
detect early warning signs of side effects, and record any cases of
Guillain-Barre that develop following a vaccination.
What Are the Symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
In Guillain-Barre syndrome, your immune system attacks your
peripheral nervous system. The nerves in your peripheral nervous system connect
your brain to the rest of your body and transmit signals to your muscles. The
muscles won’t be able to respond to signals they receive from your brain if these
nerves are damaged.
The first symptom is usually a tingling sensation in your toes,
feet, and legs. The tingling spreads upward to your arms and fingers. The
symptoms can progress very rapidly. In some people, the disease can become
serious in just a few hours.
The symptoms of Guillain-Barre include:
- tingling or prickly sensations in your fingers
- muscle weakness in your legs that travels to
your upper body and gets worse over time
- difficulty walking steadily
- difficulty moving your eyes or face, talking,
chewing, or swallowing
- severe lower back pain
- loss of bladder control
- fast heart rate
- difficulty breathing
How Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome Diagnosed?
Guillain-Barre is difficult to diagnose at first. This is because
the symptoms are very similar to those of other neurological disorders or
conditions that affect the nervous system, such as botulism, heavy metal
poisoning, or meningitis.
Your doctor will ask questions about specific symptoms and your
medical history. Be sure to tell your doctor about any unusual symptoms you’re
experiencing and if you’ve had any recent or past illnesses or infections.
The following tests are used to help confirm a diagnosis:
A spinal tap involves taking a small amount of fluid from your
spine in your lower back. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. Your
cerebrospinal fluid is then tested to detect protein levels. People with
Guillain-Barre typically have higher-than-normal levels of protein in their cerebrospinal
fluid. This test is also referred to as a lumbar puncture.
An electromyography is a nerve function test. It reads electrical
activity from the muscles to help your doctor learn if your muscle weakness is
caused by nerve damage or muscle damage.
Nerve Conduction Tests
Nerve conduction studies may be used to test how well your nerves
and muscles respond to small electrical pulses.
How Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome Treated?
Everybody with Guillain-Barre should be admitted to a hospital
for close observation. The symptoms can quickly get worse and can be fatal if they
aren’t treated. In severe cases, people with Guillain-Barre can develop
full-body paralysis. Guillain-Barre can be life-threatening if paralysis
affects the diaphragm or chest muscles, preventing proper breathing.
Guillain-Barre can’t be cured. The goal of treatment is to lessen
the severity of your symptoms and keep
your body functioning while your nervous system recovers. Treatment may
Plasmapheresis (Plasma Exchange)
The immune system produces proteins called antibodies that
normally attack harmful foreign substances, such as bacteria and viruses.
Guillain-Barre occurs when your immune system mistakenly makes antibodies that
attack the healthy nerves of your nervous system.
Plasmapheresis is intended to remove the antibodies attacking the
nerves from your blood. During this procedure, blood is removed from your body
by a machine. This machine removes the antibodies from your blood and then
returns the blood to your body.
High doses of immunoglobulin can also help to block the
antibodies causing Guillain-Barre. Immunoglobulin contains normal, healthy
antibodies from donors.
intravenous immunoglobulin are equally effective. It’s up to you and your doctor
to decide which treatment is best for you.
You may be given
medication to relieve pain and prevent blood clots while you’re immobile.
You may also benefit from physical therapy. While you’re
recovering, caregivers may manually move your arms and legs to keep them
flexible. Once you recover, you’ll work on strengthening your muscles again.
What Are the Potential Complications of Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre affects your nerves. The weakness and paralysis
that occurs can affect multiple parts of your body. Complications may include difficulty
breathing when the paralysis or weakness spreads to muscles that control
breathing. You may need a machine called a respirator to help you breathe if
this occurs. Complications can also include:
- lingering weakness, numbness, or other odd
sensations even after recovery
- heart or blood pressure problems
- slow bowel or bladder function
- blood clots and bedsores due to paralysis
What Can Be Expected in the Long Term?
The recovery period for Guillain-Barre can be long, but most
people recover fully.
In general, symptoms will get worse for two to four weeks before
they stabilize. Recovery can then take anywhere from a few weeks to a few
years. People with Guillain-Barre usually recover in six to 12 months.
According to the Mayo Clinic, 80
percent of people affected by Guillain-Barre can walk independently at six
months, and 60 percent recover their regular muscle strength. For some, though,
recovery takes longer. Thirty percent
still experience some weakness after three years. About 3 percent of people
affected by Guillain-Barre will experience a relapse of their symptoms.
In rare cases, the condition can be life-threatening if you don’t
get treatment. Factors that may lead to a worse outcome include:
- old age
- severe or rapidly progressing illness
- delay of treatment
- prolonged use of a respirator
In addition to your physical symptoms, you may experience
emotional difficulties as well. It can be challenging to adjust to limited
mobility and an increased dependence on others. You may find it helpful to talk
to a therapist.