What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a problem with your nervous system. It can cause muscle weakness, reflex loss, and numbness or tingling in parts of your body. It can lead to paralysis, which is usually temporary.

Most people recover, even those with severe cases. In fact, 85% of people with GBS make a full recovery within 6 to 12 months. Once you get better, the chance of it returning is very small.

Causes

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) can happen to anyone, but it’s most common in people 50 years old or older.

No one’s sure if a germ or virus, like the Zika virus, causes GBS . It could be that some illnesses alter your nerve cells, so your immune system starts to view them as threats. Others think your immune system forgets which cells it shouldn’t attack.

It usually shows up a few days or weeks after a cold, stomach virus, or the flu. In rare cases, surgery or vaccinations can trigger it. You may hear your doctor mention “campylobacter.” That’s a type of bacteria associated with GBS.

When you have it, your immune system begins attacking your nerve cells. That weakens their ability to send signals to your brain. And your muscles then can’t respond to nerve signals. As a result, your brain gets fewer messages to your body.

Symptoms

Guillain-Barre syndrome strikes quickly. You usually feel it first in your arms and legs. You may notice muscle weakness or a “pins and needles” tingling in your hands and feet, which later moves toward your midsection. You may also feel unusually tired. Your reflexes may slow.

Some people feel only a mild weakness. Others become almost entirely paralyzed and struggle to swallow or breathe. If you feel anything more than mild weakness, you should call 911. Your symptoms can get worse quickly.

Most people are at their weakest 3 weeks after symptoms appear.

Treatment

If your doctor thinks you have GBS, he will give you a test to measure how well your muscles and nerves work. You may also get a spinal tap. A doctor inserts a needle into your lower back and takes a small amount of spinal fluid. He’ll check the protein level; it’s high in people with GBS.

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If you’re diagnosed with GBS, you should begin treatment right away.

In some cases, in order to speed recovery, the doctor will take blood from your body, “clean” it, and then return it to you. This process is called plasmapheresis.

Your doctor may give you immunoglobulin, or antibodies. You’ll get high doses of healthy cells through an IV. These help lessen your immune system’s attack on your body.

Some people with GBS need to be hospitalized for a few days. Others stay for several weeks.

You’ll need support until you regain full control of your body. A nurse or loved one may need to exercise your arms or legs for you.

What to Expect

It may take a while for you to feel like yourself again. After a hospital stay, you may still feel weak and need a wheelchair or walker to get around. You may have physical therapy to build up your strength . A small number of people also have permanent nerve damage.

GBS usually lasts between 14 and 30 days. If your symptoms continue longer, you may be suffering from a chronic form of GBS called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy and will need more aggressive treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 07, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “About Zika Virus Disease Q&A,” “Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Flu Vaccine.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Guillain-Barre Syndrome Fact Sheet.”

Nemours Foundation: “Guillain-Barre Syndrome.”         

Newswanger, D. American Family Physician, May 15, 2004.

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