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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Guillain-Barré Syndrome - Topic Overview


What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (say "ghee-YAN bah-RAY") is a problem with your nervous system. It causes muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, face, and other parts of your body.

This rare condition can cause paralysis and lead to death. But most people get better and have few lasting problems.

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Experts don't know what causes it. They think that the nerves are attacked by your body's own defense system (the immune system). This is called an autoimmune disease.

In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the immune system attacks the covering (myelin sheath camera.gif) of certain nerves. This causes nerve damage.

Infections that may trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome

It usually begins to affect the nerves after you've had a viral or bacterial infection. Often it is after an infection of the lungs or stomach and intestines.

Infections that may trigger it include:

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet and sometimes around the mouth and lips.
  • Muscle weakness in your legs and arms and the sides of your face.
  • Trouble speaking, chewing, and swallowing.
  • Not being able to move your eyes.
  • Back pain.

Symptoms usually start with numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes. Over several days, muscle weakness in the legs and arms develops. After about 4 weeks, most people begin to get better.

You may need to be treated in the hospital for the first few weeks. This is because the condition can be deadly if weakness spreads to muscles that control breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Call your doctor or get help right away if you think you might have Guillain-Barré syndrome.

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