In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the immune system attacks the body’s nerves. Symptoms include muscle weakness, pain, tingling and loss of reflexes. Many people need a hospital stay to watch for breathing problems, heart issues, choking and other complications. Recovery can take weeks to years, but most people do recover.
Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disorder. Normally, your immune system only fights foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria. The word “auto” means “self,” so autoimmune refers to a disorder in which your immune system attacks your own body.
In GBS, the immune system specifically attacks the nerves. You can think of a nerve as being similar to a wire that allows you to control your muscles and also feel what is happening in your environment. When this wire is damaged (as it is in GBS), your body loses the ability to control the muscles and sense the environment, leading to symptoms such as muscle weakness and numbness or tingling.
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While anyone can potentially get GBS, the syndrome is more commonly found in older people.
GBS is a rare condition. In the United States, about 3,000 to 6,000 people develop the disease every year.
GBS is usually triggered by a viral or bacterial infection. Rarely, viral or bacterial components (proteins) can appear to look similar to your body’s proteins. When this happens, your immune system becomes confused and starts to attack your body. When the nerves are attacked by your immune system, this can result in GBS.
GBS isn't contagious and it's not passed down through families (it isn't an inherited disease).
Symptoms of GBS may include the following:
Like many diseases, the diagnosis of GBS is largely based on your symptoms and your neurologic examination. Your healthcare provider may also need to order tests to rule out other diseases that may present with similar symptoms as GBS.
The symptoms of GBS often progress quickly and thus require hospitalization for urgent treatment. There are two treatments that may help speed up recovery from GBS:
There is no known way to prevent GBS.
The symptoms of GBS may vary considerably from person to person and could last anywhere from weeks to years. Most people do very well and recover over the course of several months.
While most people fully recover after GBS, some people continue to have symptoms such as muscle weakness, difficulty walking or numbness and tingling. A small percentage of people may need a walker or wheelchair.
Severe cases of GBS may cause ongoing challenges. You may need help from other people to do normal daily activities such as bathing, eating, or dressing. Doctors may recommend physical therapy to help with recovery of strength. Some people may also benefit from counseling to help cope with the new emotional stresses of living with symptoms after GBS.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have pain, muscle weakness, numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, please see a healthcare provider right away. Guillain-Barre syndrome can sometimes lead to severe symptoms (such as paralysis), difficulty breathing, and changes in your blood pressure and heart rate which if not treated can lead to death. Fortunately, with treatment most people with GBS recover quite well from GBS.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/13/2021.
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