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Guillain-Barré syndrome

Definition

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a serious health problem 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 or paralysis and other symptoms.

Alternative Names

GBS; Landry-Guillain-Barré syndrome; Acute idiopathic polyneuritis; Infectious polyneuritis; Acute inflammatory polyneuropathy; Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy; Ascending paralysis

Causes

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disorder. With an autoimmune disorder, the body's immune system attacks itself. The exact cause is unknown. GBS can occur at any age. It is most common in people of both sexes between ages 30 and 50.

GBS often follows a minor infection, such as a lung infection or gastrointestinal infection. Most of the time, signs of the infection have disappeared before the symptoms of GBS begin.

The swine flu vaccination in 1976 may have caused rare cases of GBS. The swine flu and the regular flu vaccines used today have not caused more cases of the illness.

GBS damages parts of nerves. This nerve damage causes tingling, muscle weakness, and paralysis. GBS most often affects the nerve's covering (myelin sheath). This damage is called demyelination. It causes nerve signals to move more slowly. Damage to other parts of the nerve can cause the nerve to stop working altogether.

GBS may occur with viral infections such as:

  • AIDS
  • Herpes simplex
  • Mononucleosis

GBS may also occur with other medical conditions such as:

Symptoms

Symptoms of GBS can get worse quickly. It may take only a few hours for the most severe symptoms to appear. But weakness that increases over several days is also common.

Muscle weakness or loss of muscle function (paralysis) affects both sides of the body. In most cases, the muscle weakness starts in the legs and spreads to the arms. This is called ascending paralysis.

If the inflammation affects the nerves of the diaphragm and chest and there is weakness in those muscles, the person may need breathing assistance.

Other typical signs and symptoms of GBS include:

  • Loss of tendon reflexes in the arms and legs
  • Tingling or numbness (mild loss of sensation)
  • Muscle tenderness or pain (may be a cramp-like pain)
  • Uncoordinated movement (cannot walk without help)
  • Low blood pressure or poor blood pressure control
  • Abnormal heart rate 

Other symptoms may include:

  • Blurred vision and double vision
  • Clumsiness and falling
  • Difficulty moving face muscles
  • Muscle contractions
  • Palpitations (sensation of feeling the heart beat)

Emergency symptoms (seek medical help right away):

  • Breathing temporarily stops
  • Cannot take a deep breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Fainting
  • Feeling light-headed when standing

Exams and Tests

A history of increasing muscle weakness and paralysis may be a sign of GBS, especially if there was a recent illness.

A medical exam may show muscle weakness. There may also be problems with blood pressure and heart rate. These are functions that are controlled automatically by the nervous system. The examination may also show that reflexes such as the ankle or 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:

Treatment

There is no cure for GBS. Treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms, treating complications, and speeding up recovery.

In the early stages of the illness, treatment called apheresis or plasmapheresis may be given. This treatment involves removing or blocking the proteins, called antibodies, that attack the nerve cells. Other treatment helps reduce inflammation.

When symptoms are severe, treatment in the hospital will be needed. There, breathing support will likely be given.

Other treatments focus on preventing complications:

  • Blood thinners may be used to prevent blood clots.
  • If the diaphragm is weak, breathing support or even a breathing tube and ventilator may be needed.
  • Pain is treated with pain medicines or other medicines.
  • Proper body positioning or a feeding tube may be used to prevent choking during feeding if the muscles used for swallowing are weak.
  • Physical therapy helps keep joints and muscles healthy.

Support Groups

Guillain-Barré Syndrome Foundation International |www.gbs-cidp.org

Outlook (Prognosis)

Recovery can take weeks, months, or years. Most people survive and recover completely. Mild weakness may persist for some people. Outcome is likely to be good when the symptoms go away within 3 weeks after they first started.

Possible Complications

  • Breathing difficulty (respiratory failure)
  • Contractures of joints or other deformity
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots that form when someone is inactive or confined to bed)
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Low or unstable blood pressure
  • Paralysis that is permanent
  • Pneumonia
  • Skin damage (ulcers)
  • Breathing in food or fluids into the lungs (aspiration)

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Seek immediate medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Are unable to take a deep breath
  • Decreased feeling (sensation)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fainting
  • Loss of strength in the legs that gets worse over time

References

Katri B, Koontz D. Disorders of the peripheral nerves. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 76.

Walling AD, Dickson G. Guillain-Barré syndrome. Am Fam Physician. 2013;87:191-197

Yuki N, Hartung HP. Guillain-Barré syndrome. N Engl J Med. 2012;366:2294-2304.


Review Date: 5/28/2013
Reviewed By: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles CA; Department of Surgery at Los Robles Hospital, Thousand Oaks CA; Department of Surgery at Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland OR; Department of Surgery at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Cheyenne WY; Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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