About Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) causes damage to the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS comprises all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, and is responsible for sending information to and from the brain to the body’s muscle, both skeletal and within organs. It also carries sensory information, like touch and pain. When these nerves get damaged it can cause muscle weakness or paralysis and odd sensations such as pins and needles. Since it can also affect organs, those with GBS require careful monitoring of essential functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory function.

The cause of GBS is unknown though most cases generally occur after a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection. For about 75-90% of those with GBS, the effects are only temporary and complete recovery can occur. 10-15% will have permanent disabilities. Although most people will recover naturally, there is no cure to prevent GBS or to stop it from progressing.

  • Risks
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnosis & Treatment

Scientists do not know what causes GBS, but it appears to be triggered by infections in the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract 1 to 3 weeks earlier. Recent studies have also shown that there appears to be a higher risk of developing GBS after a Zika virus infection.

Other triggers that may cause the onset of GBS are pregnancy, insect bites and surgery.

It affects people of all ages, but most are diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50. Both genders are affected equally. GBS is not contagious and not hereditary.

Since it can affect the organs, those with GBS require careful monitoring of essential functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory function. This increases the risk of developing pneumonia, deep vein thrombosis and respiratory failure, which can be fatal.

Symptoms of GBS can appear quickly, sometimes over hours, or they can take weeks to manifest. They reach a peak and stay steady before recovery occurs over the next 6 months to 2 years; however, sometimes recovery can take many years. The majority of people will recover completely but 10-15% will have permanent damage.

Symptoms generally start from the feet or legs and continue up the body as the syndrome progresses, though sometimes it can start in the arms and move down the body instead.

Symptoms include:

  • Loss of muscle coordination and function, causing jerky movements, muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal sensations such as numbness, pins and needles, aches and pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Issues with digestion and/or control of bladder.

The above can vary from mild to severe, with the most severe cases affecting the muscles used for breathing and regulating blood pressure. If this happens, the person may need life support.

Diagnosis of GBS can be tough due to the wide variety of symptoms that can appear vague and random to start with. Multiple tests are needed for diagnosis such as:

  • Muscle tests such as activity, strength and reflex tests
  • Nerve conduction tests
  • Testing the cerebrospinal fluid for protein levels using a spinal tap.

Once testing confirms GBS, the individual should go to the hospital so they can be monitored closely in case vital functions become affected. There is no cure, so treatment is based on helping recovery. This can involve:

  • Plasmapheresis: the process of removing blood from the body, removing the immune cells from the blood and then returning the rest to the body
  • Gammaglobulin: still in the trial stage, but is given intravenously and works to reduce the immune cell’s ability to attack the PNS
  • Rehabilitation: this is overseen by healthcare professionals including neurologists, physiotherapists and psychologists, and will often involve physical therapy.

This content is provided for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, please consult a suitably qualified healthcare professional.