Guillain-Barre syndrome is a serious disorder that occurs when the body's defense (immune) system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. This leads to nerve inflammation that causes muscle weakness.
Landry-Guillain-Barre syndrome; Acute idiopathic polyneuritis; Infectious polyneuritis; Acute inflammatory polyneuropathy
Guillain-Barre syndrome is an autoimmune disorder (the body's immune system attacks itself). Exactly what triggers Guillain-Barre syndrome is unknown. The syndrome may occur at any age, but is most common in people of both sexes between ages 30 and 50.
It often follows a minor infection, usually a lung infection or gastrointestinal infection. Usually, signs of the original infection have disappeared before the symptoms of Guillain-Barre begin.
Guillain-Barre syndrome causes inflammation that damages parts of nerves. This nerve damage causes tingling, muscle weakness, and paralysis. The inflammation usually affects the nerve's covering (myelin sheath). Such damage is called demyelination. Demyelination slows nerve signaling. Damage to other parts of the nerve can cause the nerve to stop working.
Guillain-Barre syndrome may occur along with viral infections such as:
Some people may get Guillain-Barre syndrome after a bacterial infection or certain vaccinations (such as rabies and swine flu). A similar syndrome may occur after surgery, or when critically ill.
Symptoms of Guillain-Barre can get worse very quickly. It may take only a few hours to reach the most severe symptoms, but weakness increasing over several days is also common.
Muscle weakness or the loss of muscle function (paralysis) affects both sides of the body. In most cases, the muscle weakness starts in the legs and then spreads to the arms. This is called ascending paralysis.
Patients may notice tingling, foot or hand pain, and clumsiness. If the inflammation affects the nerves to the diaphragm, and there is weakness in those muscles, the person may need breathing assistance.
Typical symptoms include:
Additional symptoms may include:
Emergency symptoms (seek immediate medical help):
A history of increasing muscle weakness and paralysis may be a sign of Guillain-Barre syndrome, especially if there was a recent illness.
A medical exam may show muscle weakness and problems with involuntary (autonomic) body functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. The examination may also show that reflexes, such as the "knee jerk," are decreased or missing.
There may be signs of decreased breathing (caused by paralysis of the breathing muscles).
The following tests may be ordered:
There is no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, many treatments are available to help reduce symptoms, treat complications, and speed up recovery.
When symptoms are severe, the patient will need to go to the hospital for breathing help, treatment, and physical therapy.
A method called plasmapheresis is used to remove proteins, called antibodies, from the blood. The process involves taking blood from the body, usually from the arm, pumping it into a machine that removes the antibodies, then sending it back into the body.
High-dose immunoglobulin therapy (IVIg) is another treatment used to reduce the severity and length of Guillain-Barre symptoms. In this case, the immunoglobulins are added to the blood in large quantity, blocking the antibodies that cause inflammation.
Other treatments are directed at preventing complications.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation International - www.gbsfi.com
Recovery can take weeks or years. Most people survive and recover completely. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 30% of patients still have some weakness after 3 years. Mild weakness may persist for some people.
A patient's outcome is most likely to be very good when the symptoms go away within 3 weeks after they first started.
Seek immediate medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:
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Hughes RA, Wijdicks EF, Barohn R, et al. Practice parameter: immunotherapy for Guillain-Barre syndrome: report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2003;61(6):736-740.
Sharar E. Current therapeutic options in severe Guillain-Barre syndrome. Clin Neuropharmacol. 2006;29(1):45-51.
Roos KL. Viral infections. In: Goetz CG, ed. Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 41.