Guillain-Barré syndrome: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare but serious autoimmune disease of the peripheral nervous system. It can lead to weakness and paralysis that may last for months or years.

The condition frequently follows a mild viral infection that resembles flu or gastroenteritis, and some cases of Guillan-Barré syndrome (GBS) occur after a bacterial infection. Symptoms start within a few days or weeks after the infection.

The condition affects around 1 in 100,000 people in the United States (U.S.).

GBS can affect people of any age or either sex, although it is slightly more common in older people and males. The condition usually begins following an infectious disease.

This article will cover the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of GBS. Medical News Today will also investigate connections between this condition, the Zika virus, and vaccinations.

Fast facts on Guillain-Barré syndrome:

Here are some key points about Guillain-Barré syndrome. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disease.

The first symptoms of GBS are usually tingling and muscle weakness that begins in the lower extremities. The entire body can eventually become paralyzed.

The exact causes are still unknown.

Once they start to occur, the symptoms of GBS tend to develop very rapidly, over a small number of days, usually causing the highest levels of weakness within the first 2 to 3 weeks of symptom onset.

The onset often follows an infection.

Most people fully recover within 12 months, but full recovery may take up to 3 years in some cases.

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

[Tangle of nerves]
Guillain-Barre syndrome affects the myelin coating of peripheral nerves.

GBS is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder that can affect any part of the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord. This is known as the peripheral nervous system.

An autoimmune disease involves the immune system attacking and destroying certain groups of healthy cells. In the case of GBS, the immune system attacks the myelin sheaths of peripheral nerves.

The myelin sheaths are the coatings on the axons of nerves, and myelin is essential for the speedy carrying of axonal nerve impulses. Axons are the long, thin extensions of nerve cells. In some cases, these are also attacked.

As the myelin is damaged, nerves can no longer send certain information to the spinal cord and brain, such as touch sensations. This causes the sensation of numbness. In addition, the brain and spinal cord are no longer able to transmit signals back to the body, leading to muscle weakness.

The disease often begins with tingling sensations and weakness in the feet and legs. It then slowly spreads upward until a large portion of the body is affected. The nerves connected to the lower extremities are the longest in the body. This travel distance makes these nerves more prone to a break in nerve signals due to GBS and its symptoms.

This condition is considered a medical emergency, and an individual should receive medical attention as soon as possible.

Initially, GBS was considered to be a single condition. Now, it is thought to take a number of forms. The three most common types of GBS are as follows:

Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP): This is the most common type in the U.S. Typically, the weakness begins in the lower part of the body and gradually ascends to the other body parts.

Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS): MFS occurs in around 5 to 10 percent of GBS cases in the U.S. However, this form of GBS is more prevalent in Asia. Paralysis begins with the eyes, and problems with walking are common.

Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN): These versions of the condition are rare in the U.S. but more common in Japan, China, and Mexico.

Chiropractor looking at patient's knee and leg while they sit on bed.
Symptoms of GBS, including weakness, instability, and pain, typically start in the lower body and move upwards.

Around 1 in 10 people with GBS report tingling sensations starting in their face or neck. The weakness gradually gets worse and becomes paralysis.

Symptoms and other complications include:

weakness in the lower body, moving upward

general instability when walking

less control over facial muscles during activities such as chewing or talking

cramp-like pain that gets worse at night

lack of control over the bowel or bladder

pain, with around 50 percent of people with GBS experiencing severe nerve pain that may need drug management

a faster heart rate than normal

high or low blood pressure

blood clots

pressure sores if a person is immobile for a considerable length of time

difficulty breathing

a future relapse of the condition in 3 percent of people with GBS

psychological and cognitive difficulties

Contact a healthcare professional immediately if these symptoms occur.

GBS can also cause emotional symptoms, as adjusting to rapid paralysis and requiring assistance from others for daily tasks can be distressing.

What's to know about demyelination?What’s to know about demyelination?
Demyelinaton also affects the myelin sheaths of the nerves. Click here to find out more.
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Causes

The exact causes of GBS are still not known.

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