Guillain-Barré Syndrome

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Guillain-Barré Syndrome

What Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (say: GHEE-yan bah-RAY SIN-drome) is a rare medical condition that affects a person's immune system and nerves. The immune system, which usually keeps a person from getting sick, starts damaging the nerves that are outside of the brain and spinal cord.

Healthy nerves are able to transmit messages from the brain to different parts of the body. For instance, when you decide to throw a ball, your brain instructs your arm and hand to do it. And when you feel something with your fingertips, your skin sends signals your brain about the sensation. But when nerves have been damaged by Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), they can't transmit messages properly.

This is why someone with GBS may not be able to throw a ball, run, hold a pencil, or sometimes even breathe normally. The muscles don't work like they're supposed to, and in severe cases, the muscles may be paralyzed (say: PAIR-uh-lyzed). This means they can't move at all.

And sometimes a person with GBS feels funny sensations in their skin — this is because the nerves that transmit messages about sensation are not working properly.

People who get GBS usually spend time in the hospital. But most people with GBS recover and are able to return to normal lives and activities.

GBS can affect almost anyone at any age, but it is extremely rare: Only 1 or 2 people in 100,000 will get it.

What Are the Symptoms of GBS?

The first symptoms include feelings of weakness or tingling in the legs. These sensations then spread to the arms and upper body. Sometimes people with GBS feel exhausted and can't seem to move. They may also have difficulty breathing.

What Causes GBS?

Doctors aren't sure what causes GBS, but they have some clues. For instance, doctors say many GBS cases seem to happen after a viral or bacterial infection, like those that cause sore throats or diarrhea. This could be because the person's immune system is already working hard to get rid of the virus or infection and makes a mistake by attacking nerve cells. But doctors don't know why some people get GBS and other people recover normally.

How Is GBS Diagnosed?

Doctors may suspect GBS after looking at the problems a person is having, such as weakness or tingling in the legs. The doctor may perform a few tests, including a spinal tap.

Two other tests — an electromyogram (EMG) and a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test — can figure out how well the person's nerves are sending signals down to the arms and legs and back up to the brain.

How Is GBS Treated?

Because GBS usually gets worse before it gets better, GBS is generally treated in the hospital, so the person can be near doctors, nurses, and medical equipment. Some GBS patients stay in the hospital's intensive care unit, called an ICU. In that part of a hospital, patients get extra special care.

Someone who has GBS could be in the hospital for several days or several weeks. It depends on how sick GBS makes the person feel.

Recovering From GBS

It may take a long time before people with GBS feel better, even after they come home from the hospital. Sometimes, someone with GBS may need to be in a wheelchair or use a walker until he or she regains strength and can walk easily again.

Physical therapy can help the person get stronger and learn to move around again. The physical therapist can create a training program of exercises that will help the person get better.

A kid recovering from GBS may feel sad, angry, frustrated — or all three. Sometimes seeing a counselor or therapist can help with the emotions and feelings that go along with having GBS. Family and friends can be a big help, too, by being supportive and cheering the person on to a full recovery.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2013
Originally reviewed by: Mena T. Scavina, DO

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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