What Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Guillain-Barré syndrome — a disorder that affects only one in 100,000 people a year — occurs when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the peripheral nervous system, which includes all the nerves in the body outside the brain and spinal cord. While 70 percent of people with Guillain-Barré syndrome make a full recovery, the process can be slow, and the worst side effects, such as temporary paralysis, can be debilitating. Men and women are equally susceptible to the condition, and while it can strike at any age, adults and seniors seem most at risk.
Medical researchers don’t yet know what causes Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is neither contagious nor inherited. Because it is an autoimmune disorder — a condition in which the immune system mistakes healthy cells as “intruders” — researchers believe it might be triggered by infection. In fact, Guillain-Barré syndrome typically manifests itself a few weeks after a viral respiratory or gastrointestinal infection. Less frequently, surgery is suspected as a cause of the condition.
Symptoms often appear in two stages. Milder, vague symptoms appear first and then disappear, only to be replaced by more severe, longer-lasting symptoms. Symptoms may include:
- Abnormal blood pressure — Blood pressure is temporarily affected, and dangerously low pressure can occur.
- Bladder incontinence — Some people with Guillain-Barré syndrome experience the inability to control urine or fecal matter.
- Difficulty walking — This early symptom is more commonly found in children, who might even refuse to walk.
- General muscle weakness on both sides of the body — Walking and climbing stairs become difficult. The weakness typically is at its worst two or three weeks after the first symptoms appear.
- Pain — This symptom is often more severe at night.
- Pain that begins in the back or legs — This symptom is also common in children.
- Paralysis — If symptoms reach this stage, Guillain-Barré syndrome becomes life-threatening, as it can affect involuntary processes such as breathing.
- Tingling — Pins and needles sensations typically affect the hands and feet.
There is no known cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome, and recovery is often slow. Complications are rarely fatal, but some patients may need to be monitored in a hospital intensive care unit if they develop heart attack or respiratory distress syndrome. Treatment for Guillain-Barré syndrome may include:
- Plasma exchange — During this process, a catheter in the vein is used to remove some of the patient’s blood, which is returned as plasma. This technique may reduce the severity and duration of the Guillain-Barré episode.
- High-dose immunoglobulin therapy — This therapy, which involves the intravenous injection of donated antibodies to lessen the immune attack on the nervous system. The two therapies are equally effective if given within two weeks of symptom onset.
- Supportive care — Doctors may use heart and respiratory monitors, a ventilator for breathing and other vital-sign monitoring tools to make sure paralysis or other complications don’t endanger a patient’s life.
- Rehabilitative care — Patients who have had very long hospital stays may require treatments to prevent blood clots and pressure sores, as well as physical therapy to keep muscles healthy. Once discharged, these patients may also need physical, occupational and speech therapy.
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