What is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
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.
Who gets Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
While anyone can potentially get GBS, the syndrome is more commonly found in older people.
Is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) common?
GBS is a rare condition. In the United States, about 3,000 to 6,000 people develop the disease every year.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
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.
Is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) contagious or passed down through families?
GBS isn't contagious and it's not passed down through families (it isn't an inherited disease).
What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
Symptoms of GBS may include the following:
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.
- Back pain.
- Muscle weakness (usually starts in the feet and moves upward).
- Breathing difficulty.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Heart rate or blood pressure problems.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) diagnosed?
Like many diseases, the diagnosis of GBS is largely based on a patient’s symptoms as well as their neurologic examination. A healthcare provider may also need to order tests to rule out other diseases that may present with similar symptoms as GBS.
What are some tests that your provider may order to help diagnose Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
- Spinal tap (this is also known as a lumbar puncture): A spinal tap is a procedure that allows for the sampling of the cerebrospinal fluid (i.e. the fluid which surrounds your spinal cord and brain). During this procedure, a small needle is inserted into the back. A small amount of cerebrospinal fluid is then removed and sent for analysis. The main goal of the analysis is to look for signs of other diseases which could appear similar to GBS (such as an infection of the nervous system) as well particular findings which support a diagnosis of GBS.
- Electromyography (EMG): The EMG is a test which includes two parts: 1. Nerve conduction studies and 2. Needle electromyography. This is a test of the health and function of your nerves and muscles. Since GBS damages the nerves, findings on this test can be helpful to your healthcare provider in making the diagnosis of GBS.
Management and Treatment
How is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) treated?
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:
- Intravenous immunoglobulin therapy (IVIG): This is an infusion of antibodies (the proteins that your body uses to fight foreign invaders) that has been collected from tens of thousands of other people. This infusion helps calm down your body’s immune system attack on your nerves.
- Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis): This is a procedure that involves filtering the liquid part of your blood (known as plasma). During this filtering process, your body’s antibodies which are attacking the nerves are removed and the “cleaned” plasma is returned back to your body. This helps stop the body’s immune system from continuing to attack your nerves.
Can I prevent Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
There is no known way to prevent GBS.
Outlook / Prognosis
How long will I have Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
The symptoms of GBS may vary considerably from person to person and could last anywhere from weeks to years. Most patients do very well and recover over the course of several months.
Are there any long-term effects from Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) ?
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.
How do I cope with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)?
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.