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.
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 may occur with infections from viruses or bacteria, such as:
GBS damages parts of nerves. This nerve damage causes tingling, muscle weakness, and paralysis. GBS most often affects the nerve 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.
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 chest and diaphragm (the large muscle under your lungs that helps you breathe) and those muscles are weak, you may need breathing assistance.
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.
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, a treatment called apheresis or plasmapheresis may be given. This treatment involves removing or blocking the proteins, called antibodies, that attack the nerve cells. Another treatment is intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg). Both treatments lead to faster improvement, and both are equally effective. There is no advantage to using both treatments. Other treatments help reduce inflammation.
When symptoms are severe, treatment in the hospital will be needed. Breathing support will likely be given.
Other treatments in the hospital focus on preventing complications. These may include:
Blood thinners to prevent blood clots
Breathing support or a breathing tube and ventilator, if the diaphragm is weak
Pain medicines or other medicines to treat pain
Proper body positioning or a feeding tube to prevent choking during feeding, if the muscles used for swallowing are weak
Physical therapy to help keep joints and muscles healthy
Recovery can take weeks, months, or years. Most people survive and recover completely. In some people, mild weakness may persist. The outcome is likely to be good when the symptoms go away within 3 weeks after they first started.
These complications of GBS that can occur:
Breathing difficulty (respiratory failure)
Shortening of tissues in the joints (contractures) or other deformities
Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) that form when the person with GBS is inactive or has to stay in bed
Seek medical help right away if you have any of these symptoms:
Trouble taking a deep breath
Decreased feeling (sensation)
Loss of strength in the legs that gets worse over time
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.
Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.