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Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Topic Overview

Picture of a nerve cell

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (say "ghee-YAN bah-RAY") is a problem with your nervous system. It causes muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, face, and other parts of your body.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) can cause paralysis and lead to death. But most people get better and have few lasting problems.

GBS is rare.

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Experts don't know what causes GBS. They think that the nerves are attacked by your body’s own defense system (the immune system). This is called an autoimmune disease.

In GBS, the immune system attacks the covering (myelin sheath) of certain nerves. This causes nerve damage.

Infections that may trigger GBS

GBS usually begins to affect the nerves after you've had a viral or bacterial infection. Often it is after an infection of the lungs or stomach and intestines.

Infections that may trigger GBS include:

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of GBS include:

  • Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet and sometimes around the mouth and lips.
  • Muscle weakness in your legs and arms and the sides of your face.
  • Trouble speaking, chewing, and swallowing.
  • Not being able to move your eyes.
  • Back pain.

Symptoms usually start with numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes. Over several days, muscle weakness in the legs and arms develops. After about 4 weeks, most people begin to get better.

You may need to be treated in the hospital for the first few weeks. This is because GBS can be deadly if weakness spreads to muscles that control breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Call your doctor or get help right away if you think you might have GBS.

How is Guillain-Barré syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask when your symptoms started and how they have changed. He or she also may ask if you've had any recent infections.

Two signs are important in helping your doctor decide if you have GBS:

  • Your arms and legs are getting weaker.
  • You are losing your reflexes, which are automatic body movements that you can't control.

Your doctor also may do tests, such as a lumbar puncture and a nerve conduction study.

If the diagnosis isn't clear, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the nervous system (neurologist).

How is it treated?

GBS usually is treated in the hospital. The hospital staff will watch you carefully to be sure you don't get worse or get an infection. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure are carefully tracked. Some people need a ventilator to help them breathe.

In the hospital, you may get a plasma exchange or intravenous immune globulin (IVIG).

  • In a plasma exchange, blood is taken out of your body. The harmful antibodies are removed from the blood, and then the blood is returned to your body.
  • In IVIG, helpful antibodies are added to your blood.

These treatments may help your body fight the disease and may speed your recovery if they are used when you first get GBS. You may need to stay in the hospital for weeks or longer, until your symptoms have improved.

Sometimes GBS can come back. Both plasma exchange and IVIG therapy may be needed to reduce the severity of a relapse.

How long will it take to recover?

You may need 3 to 6 months or longer to recover from GBS. And you may have to wait several months before you can return to your regular activities.

Many people have long-term effects from GBS, such as numbness in the toes and fingers. In most cases, these problems won't get in the way of your daily life. Some people have more serious problems, such as long-term weakness or balance problems.

Support at home is important during this time. You may need some help with some of your activities and chores until you're stronger.

Regular exercise can help you strengthen your weakened muscles. Talk to your doctor about exercising during your recovery. If you have severe muscle weakness, you may need physical or occupational therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about Guillain-Barré syndrome:

Getting treatment:

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
NIH Neurological Institute
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Phone: 1-800-352-9424
Phone: (301) 496-5751
Web Address: www.ninds.nih.gov
 

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the leading U.S. federal government agency supporting research on brain and nervous system disorders. It provides the public with educational materials and information about these disorders.


American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA)
22100 Gratiot Avenue
East Detroit, MI  48021
Phone: 1-800-598-4668 toll-free
Phone: (586) 776-3900
Fax: (586) 776-3903
Web Address: www.aarda.org
 

This national nonprofit health agency is dedicated to curing autoimmune diseases and relieving the suffering and the economic and social impact of autoimmune diseases. AARDA brings professionals together in the areas of education, research, and patient services. This group sponsors physicians' conferences, research, legislative advocacy, and a national awareness campaign.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Web Address: www.cdc.gov
 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC works with state and local health officials and the public to achieve better health for all people. The CDC creates the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health—by promoting health, preventing disease, injury, and disability, and being prepared for new health threats.


Guillain-Barré Syndrome/Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy Foundation International (GBS/CIDP)
104½ Forrest Avenue
Narberth, PA 19072
Phone: 1-866-224-3301 toll-free
Phone: (610) 667-0131
Fax: (610) 667-7036
Email: info@gbs-cidp.org
Web Address: http://gbs-cidp.org
 

This organization is a good source of information and support for people affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) or Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP). It can direct people who have long-term disability caused by GBS or CIDP to support groups and resources that provide vocational, financial, and other assistance.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.


Related Information

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Brannagan TH, Weimer LH (2010). Acquired neuropathies. In LP Rowland, TA Pedley, eds., Merritt's Neurology, 12th ed., pp. 822–837. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Cortese I, et al. (2011). Evidence-based guideline update: Plasmapheresis in neurologic disorders: Report of the Therapeutics and Technology Assessment Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology, 76(3): 294–300.
  • Hughes RAC, et al. (2003). Practice parameter: Immunotherapy for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Neurology, 61: 736–740.
  • Hughes RAC, et al. (2012). Intravenous immunoglobulin for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (7).
  • Raphaël JC, et al. (2002). Plasma exchange for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2). Oxford: Update Software.
  • Ropper AH, Samuels MA (2009). Diseases of the peripheral nerves. In Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 9th ed., pp. 1251–1325. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Colin Chalk, MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology
Last Revised October 14, 2011

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