What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare medical condition in which a person’s peripheral nerves are attacked by the immune system. If a person has GBS, the nerves cannot send signals to the body in efficient ways. GBS causes weakness in the muscles, a loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in parts of the body including the arms, legs, and face. The syndrome cannot be passed from one person to another.

What causes GBS?

Experts are not sure of the cause of GBS. However, the following can make a person more likely to develop the syndrome:

  • Breathing-related illness
  • Digestive system illness
  • Infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni (which can cause food poisoning)
  • The flu or other infections
  • The varicella-zoster virus (virus that can cause shingles and chickenpox)
  • The Epstein-Barr virus
  • Vaccinations (rare)
  • Surgeries

What population is most likely to develop GBS?

The syndrome can appear in either sex at any age. It affects only about one in 100,000 people.

What are the symptoms of GBS?

The most severe symptoms take place as early as two weeks after the first signs appear.

Early symptoms:

  • Weakness or tingling in the legs
  • Weakness or tingling spreading to the arms and upper body
  • Increasing fatigue
  • Loss of reflexes

Later symptoms:

  • Complete paralysis of certain muscles
  • Breathing or swallowing problems
  • Blood pressure or heart rate problems

How is GBS diagnosed?

A doctor will do a physical exam and take a medical history. He or she will ask a few questions about such things as:

  • Whether the symptoms appear on both sides of the body
  • Whether the symptoms happened quickly and got progressively worse
  • Whether the symptoms started in the feet and legs and spread to the upper body and arms

Physical tests include:

  • Spinal tap
  • Electromyogram (EMG; an electrical test of a person’s muscles and nerves) that includes nerve conduction studies (NCS), a test in which small shocks are applied to the nerves

How is GBS treated?

In most cases, the patient is hospitalized and vital signs are carefully monitored. The hospital stay can vary from a few days to a few weeks, depending on how serious the condition is.

Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) is one possible treatment. In this treatment, blood is drawn and plasma (the liquid part of the blood) is removed. The cells are placed back into the body. This treatment can shorten the length and severity of GBS symptoms. Another treatment is immunoglobulin therapy, in which healthy blood is put into a person to try to counteract harmful antibodies.

Physical therapy is given once the person with GBS begins to regain control of his or her limbs. Some patients with severe GBS are put on a ventilator to help them breathe.

What is the outlook for people with GBS?

Most people usually make full recoveries, even if they have severe symptoms although fatigue is a common symptom that may be persistent. Recovery can be a slow process. In severe cases, the patient can be almost completely paralyzed. GBS is life threatening in severe cases because it has the potential to interfere with breathing. These cases of GBS also can interfere with heart rate or blood pressure.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/2/2015…#15838