Everything To Learn About Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a neurological disorder that attacks the peripheral nerves causing weakness to severe paralysis. Understand the causes, symptoms, and available treatments for this challenging condition.

By URLife Team
18 Feb 2024

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), is a rare neurological condition. In this, the body’s immune system attacks segments of the peripheral nervous system, responsible for transmitting signals from the brain and spinal cord throughout the body.


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The onset of GBS is abrupt and may progress in severity over hours, days, or weeks, ultimately leading to partial or complete paralysis of certain muscles. While some instances of GBS manifest as mild weakness, others result in profound paralysis, posing a life-threatening risk by impeding essential bodily functions such as breathing, blood pressure regulation, or heart rate. Fortunately, many individuals eventually recover from even severe cases of GBS, though residual weakness may persist post-recovery.


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Symptoms And Causes of Guillain-Barré syndrome 

According to a 2022 report published in the Mayo Clinic,  the precise cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome remains unknown. But a significant proportion of patients report experiencing symptoms of an infection within the six weeks prior to the onset of the condition. One of the most prevalent risk factors for Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is infection with the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, known to cause gastroenteritis. Symptoms of this infection often include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

These infections may include respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, COVID-19, or exposure to the Zika virus.  The severity of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) can vary widely, ranging from mild to severe. 

Depending on the severity, individuals may experience additional symptoms such as:

  • Deep muscular pain in the back and/or legs.
  • Paralysis affects the legs, arms, and/or facial muscles. In severe cases, near-total paralysis may occur.
  • Weakness in the chest muscles, potentially leading to difficulty breathing, which affects approximately one in three people with GBS.
  • Difficulty with speaking and swallowing (dysphagia).
  • Impaired eye movement and vision problems.

GBS symptoms can progress over a period of hours, days, or weeks. Most individuals reach the peak of weakness within the first two weeks after symptom onset. By the third week, around 90 per cent of individuals are at their weakest. If you experience sudden muscle weakness worsening over a short period, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly. Starting treatment for GBS as early as possible is essential for optimal management of the condition.


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Complications of Guillain-Barré syndrome 

Severe early symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome significantly heighten the risk of serious long-term complications. In rare cases, complications such as respiratory distress syndrome and heart attacks can lead to death. Guillain-Barré syndrome affects the nerves, impacting movement and bodily functions, leading to various potential experiences, including:

1. Breathing difficulties: Weakness or paralysis may extend to the muscles controlling breathing, potentially resulting in a life-threatening complication. Up to 22 per cent of hospitalised individuals with Guillain-Barré syndrome require temporary respiratory assistance within the first week of treatment.

2. Residual sensations: While most individuals fully recover from Guillain-Barré syndrome, some may experience minor residual weakness, numbness, or tingling sensations.

3. Heart and blood pressure issues: Fluctuations in blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmias) are common occurrences in Guillain-Barré syndrome.

4. Pain: Approximately one-third of individuals with Guillain-Barré syndrome suffer from severe nerve pain, which can often be alleviated with medication.

5. Bowel and bladder function problems: Sluggish bowel function and urine retention can result from Guillain-Barré syndrome.

6. Blood clots: Immobility due to Guillain-Barré syndrome increases the risk of blood clot formation. Until independent walking is achievable, blood thinners and support stockings may be recommended.

7. Pressure sores: Immobility also raises the risk of developing bedsores (pressure sores). Regular repositioning can help prevent this complication.

8. Relapse: A small percentage of individuals may experience a relapse of muscle weakness even years after the initial symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome have resolved.


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Diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome 

The diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) relies on symptoms and neurological examination, particularly noting diminished or absent deep-tendon reflexes. As per a 2023 report by the World Health Organisation, additional tests such as a lumbar puncture or Electromyography (EMG) may provide supportive information but should not delay treatment initiation. 

  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction tests: These assessments evaluate the health and function of skeletal muscles and the nerves controlling them, aiding in the diagnosis of nerve damage.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture): This procedure involves inserting a needle into the lower back to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Laboratory analysis of the CSF sample can reveal characteristic findings, such as a normal white blood cell count and elevated protein levels, present in approximately 80 per cent of GBS cases. Abnormalities in CSF composition may suggest alternative diagnoses.
  • Imaging tests: Your healthcare provider may recommend an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of the spine to assess for any structural abnormalities or signs of nerve compression.  

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Treatment And Prevention 

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is typically managed through a combination of supportive care and specific treatments aimed at reducing symptoms and speeding up recovery. 

According to a 2024 report issued in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders And Strokes, treatment strategies for GBS may include:

1. Immunotherapy: This involves modulating the immune system to reduce the attack on the peripheral nerves. Two main forms of immunotherapy are commonly used:

  • Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG): High-dose injections of immunoglobulin, which are proteins that help modulate the immune system, are administered into the bloodstream. IVIG is often effective in shortening the duration of GBS symptoms and reducing their severity.
  • Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis): This procedure involves removing blood from the body, separating the plasma (the liquid portion of blood containing antibodies) from the blood cells, and then returning the blood cells to the body. By removing harmful antibodies from the plasma, plasma exchange helps to alleviate symptoms of GBS.

2. Supportive care: GBS patients require close monitoring and supportive care, particularly if they experience severe symptoms such as respiratory failure. Supportive measures may include:

  • Mechanical ventilation: If respiratory muscles are affected, mechanical ventilation may be necessary to assist with breathing.
  • Physical therapy: Rehabilitation services help patients maintain muscle strength and function, reduce the risk of complications such as bedsores, and improve overall mobility and independence.
  • Pain management: Medications may be prescribed to alleviate nerve pain and discomfort associated with GBS.

3. Monitoring for complications: GBS patients should be monitored for potential complications such as respiratory infections, blood clots, and autonomic dysfunction (problems with blood pressure and heart rate regulation).

4. Early detection and treatment of complications: Prompt identification and management of complications are essential for improving outcomes and minimising the risk of serious complications such as respiratory failure and cardiac arrhythmias.


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Overall, a multidisciplinary approach involving neurologists, intensive care specialists, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals is crucial for effectively managing Guillain-Barré syndrome and optimising patient outcomes. Treatment plans are tailored to individual patient needs based on the severity of symptoms, the presence of complications, and other relevant factors.

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