Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nerves (the nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body).
Guillain-Barré syndrome is rare, affecting only about one or 2 people in every 100,000 per year. It can occur at any age, although it is more common in older people, and men are affected more often than women.
Causes of Guillain-Barré syndrome
The exact cause of GBS is not known, however it is commonly triggered by a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection some weeks before. An organism called Clostridium jejuni is most commonly implicated, followed by cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection. Other triggers may include surgery, head trauma or certain vaccinations.
Symptoms and signs of GBS may include:
- weakness or paralysis of the muscles;
- numbness, tingling sensations or pain, particularly in the extremities (fingers and toes);
- abnormalities of the heart rhythm and blood pressure;
- problems with bladder control and bowel function; and
- difficulty breathing.
The symptoms can vary from being mild to being life-threatening, depending on which nerves are involved and how severely they are damaged. The illness usually peaks at about 2 to 4 weeks.
Most people with GBS will recover, although the recovery may take up to 18 months. A small percentage of people may never make a complete recovery.
Diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome
In the early stages of the disorder, diagnosis may be difficult because symptoms may vary from person to person and may mimic other disorders of the nervous system. The diagnosis is usually confirmed by nerve function tests (nerve conduction studies and needle electromyography) and a spinal tap (to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid — the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord — for analysis). Imaging studies, such as CT and MRI, may be used to exclude other diagnoses.
Guillain-Barré syndrome treatment
Treatment involves admission to hospital for monitoring and also for supportive management of problems such as breathing difficulties and irregularities of the heart rhythm and blood pressure. About a quarter of people with GBS will need to be placed on a ventilator because of problems with breathing.
There is no cure for GBS, but certain therapies can lessen the severity of and hasten the recovery from the disorder. These treatments include:
plasmapheresis (also known as ‘plasma exchange’), where certain damaging antibodies are removed from your blood; and
intravenous immunoglobulin (the injection of healthy antibodies into a vein through a drip).
Following treatment of the acute stage of the illness, rehabilitation is important and may involve you seeing physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists.
Having GBS can be an emotional strain, so counselling and support groups may be helpful.
Last Reviewed: 13/11/2012
1. Mayo Clinic. Guillain Barre syndrome. [Internet]. Dated May 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/guillain-barre-syndrome/DS00413 (Accessed Dec 2012).