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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

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Updated May 16, 2014

What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?:

Guillain-Barre syndrome is an autoimmune disorder in which peripheral nerves are damaged and cannot transmit signals efficiently. The disease typically progresses from the legs up the body to the trunk and may even affect the respiratory system, causing almost complete paralysis.

In Guillain-Barre syndrome, the myelin sheath protecting the nerves are damaged, so signals traveling along the nerves are not transmitted properly. Because nerves cannot transmit signals to muscles, muscles will not function properly, thus causing paralysis.

What causes Guillain-Barre syndrome?:

No one knows exactly what causes Guillain-Barre syndrome or why some people get it and other do not. Most people who get Guillain-Barre syndrome do so after having a bacterial or viral infection. In some cases, it has been connected to certain immunizations, such as the flu vaccine, and can even occur spontaneously.

What are the symptoms?:

Because Guillain-Barre is a syndrome and not a disease, it can be very difficult to diagnose. The symptoms are not always the same in every person, but typically reflexes will be lost and the paralysis or loss of feeling will occur on both sides of the body rather than just one side or the other. The symptoms of Guillain-Barre also progress quickly, in hours, days or weeks, rather than months like some similar disorders.

What should you expect when diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome?:

If a doctor suspects Guillain-Barre syndrome, he or she will typically perform a spinal tap to make the diagnosis. Most people have reached the peak of the disorder, meaning the greatest amount of paralysis, in about two or three weeks. Recovery can then take anywhere from a few weeks to months or even years.

How is Guillain-Barre syndrome treated?:

There is no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, although it usually reverses on its own. It is fatal in a very small percentage of people who develop it.

Both immunoglobulin therapy and plasma exchange are used as treatments and have been found to be equally effective. Because of the severity of the symptoms and the complexity of the therapies, patients with Guillain-Barre are usually kept in the hospital in intensive care units. Depending on the symptoms, patients may need to be put on ventilators to assist with breathing and physical therapy may be used so muscle function does not deteriorate.

Sources:

Guillain-Barre Syndrome Fact Sheet. Office of Communications and Public Liaison.National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. National Institutes of Health 25 June 2007. 01 Jul 2007.

Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) Among Persons who Received Meningococcal Conjugate Vaccine. Science Coordination and Innovation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 8 Jan 2007. 1 Jul 2007.

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