Updated 1 November 2022 | Approved By Dr. Umberto Russo
What is Guillain Barre Syndrome?Guillain-Barre syndrome (also known as Guillian-Barrè syndrome) is a rare autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system begins to attack its nerves. The nerves are essential for helping the body move and feel sensations. Damage to the nerves can cause issues such as pain and weakness. According to the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, approximately 2-8 in every 100,000 Australians will develop Guillain-Barre Syndrome . Those between the ages of 30-50 have the highest chance of developing this condition. However, it can affect all genders and ages. Currently, research is still being performed about why people develop this condition. However, many people report lung and gut infections before being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome. Fortunately, most people can make a full recovery. If you are experiencing any related symptoms, please talk to your doctor about potential testing and treatment options.
Guillain Barre Syndrome SymptomsAbout two-thirds of patients often report symptoms of Guillain Barre syndrome appearing days or weeks after a lung and/or gut infection . Medical experts speculate that these infections may trigger an immune system overreaction. Once symptoms begin, they progressively reach their most severe stages within 2-4 weeks. Over time, symptoms may remain similar before recovering. Symptoms and signs of Guillain Barre syndrome to watch out for include :
- Muscle weakness of the arms and legs
- Pins and needles
- Unsteadiness and difficulty with walking
- Difficulty with feeling and moving the face
- Difficulty with swallowing
- Breathing issues
How Do You Get Guillain Barre Syndrome?Many people develop Guillain Barre syndrome after specific lung or stomach infection types. Afterwards, the body’s immune system begins to attack parts of the peripheral nerve responsible for sensation and movement. Doctors are still unsure why these reactions occur in some people and not others . Guillain Barre syndrome is also an extremely rare (about 1 in every 100,000) side effect after receiving some vaccinations. Risk factors that increase the chances of getting Guillain Barre syndrome, include :
- Diabetes (read more here)
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Exposure to heavy metals and toxins
- Some medications
Guillain Barre Syndrome Diagnosis and TestingDetecting Guillain Barre syndrome in the early stages can be difficult because the symptoms are similar to other conditions. A detailed medical history of your health and symptoms may be required for diagnosis. Other tests that your doctor may recommend include:
Physical ExaminationYour doctor may perform a physical examination to look for signs of Guillain Barre syndrome, including muscle strength and reflexes . Although this provides valuable information, a physical exam alone may not be enough for a diagnosis.
Lumbar PunctureA lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) is a medical test used to diagnose certain conditions . This process involves inserting a needle in the lower back region to collect around the spinal cord (also known as cerebrospinal fluid). A diagnosis maybe after the sample of fluid is taken for laboratory analysis.
Nerve TestsNerve tests can also be performed to determine how the nerves are functioning. These tests show how fast impulses travel through nerves and how they control the surrounding muscles. Results from nerve tests can be used to support a diagnosis .
Guillain Barre Syndrome TreatmentDuring the early stages of Guillain Barre syndrome, you may be treated in the hospital to ensure that you are breathing properly. The treatment goals will be to control symptoms, encourage recovery and provide supportive care during recovery. A range of health professionals and treatments may be required for ongoing management.
Plasma ExchangePlasma exchange is the most beneficial within the first week after the symptoms start . During this treatment, blood is separated into two parts: the red blood cells and plasma (the liquid portion). While the cells are returned to the body, the plasma is removed and quickly replenished by the body. This treatment aims to remove antibodies and proteins from the plasma that triggered the condition.
Immunoglobulin TherapyImmunoglobulin therapy may be another option during the early stages of Guillain Barre syndrome . During the therapy, immunoglobulins are infused into the body through your veins. These immunoglobulins (antibodies) help fight against the antibodies responsible for triggering the condition. These immunoglobulins are collected from several blood donors.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) PreventionOver time, those with Guillain Barre syndrome may be bedridden and/or physically inactive. As a result, this increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis, a clot that typically develops in the legs. This is a potentially dangerous condition that can lead to stroke. Wearing compression stockings, regularly moving or getting caretakers to move the body may help reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis .
PhysiotherapyThere are several physical consequences of Guillain Barre syndrome, including difficulty walking, muscle weakness, lung issues and problems with balance. Physical therapy is pivotal in maintaining and/or improving physical function during recovery . Your physiotherapist's treatment includes exercise, breathing techniques, walking re-education and temporary usage of walking aids (e.g. walking stick, frame, etc.).
RecoveryOver the first 2-4 weeks of the condition, symptoms will typically worsen and reach their most severe stage . After this early stage, there will be a period (around two days to 6 months) where symptoms will plateau and slowly begin to recover. Most people will eventually make a full recovery, with 80% of patients being able to walk independently by six months .
ComplicationsAlthough most people will fully recover, around 20% of those with Guillain-Barre syndrome will continue to experience ongoing symptoms and disabilities . Other complications include:
- Respiratory and breathing problems
- Long-term paralysis
- Lung clots
- Loss of independence
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- Van den Berg, B., Walgaard, C., Drenthen, J., Fokke, C., Jacobs, B. C., & Van Doorn, P. A. (2014). Guillain–Barré syndrome: pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. Nature Reviews Neurology, 10(8), 469-482.
- Barre, G. Rehabilitation in Guillian Barre syndrome.
- Nguyen, T. P., & Taylor, R. S. (2021). Guillain barre syndrome. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.