Guillain-Barré Syndrome

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Guillain-Barré syndrome symptoms can begin quickly, or progress slowly over time. Common symptoms usually begin with the hands or legs tingling and loss of relfex motion

Guillain-Barré Syndrome Symptoms

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

It takes a celebrity to draw attention to illnesses that often fly under the radar. Such is the case of William "The Fridge" Perry, the Ex-Chicago Bear football player who came to national attention when the team won the Super Bowl with Perry as a defensive star. In 2008, Mr. Perry spent five months in the hospital because of Guillain-Barré syndrome and survived an illness that is a potential killer.

Nobody knows what why Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs. It's an autoimmune diseasein which the body attacks its own tissue; in this disease, the tissue is the myelinthat covers nervefibers and the attack causes failure of those nerves to work. This leads to symptoms that begin with numbness and tingling of the arms or legs and can progress to muscle weakness. The major worry with this condition is that important muscles like those that help us breathe become weak, and respiratoryfailure can occur.

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Guillain-Barré facts

*Guillain-Barré facts Medically Edited by: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs when the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, leading to weakness or tingling in the legs. Symptoms sometimes affect the arms and upper body. Severe cases of Guillain-Barré can lead to paralysis and are life-threatening.
  • Guillain-Barré is a very rare condition that afflicts about one person out of 100,000. The condition often manifests after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. Surgery or vaccines may also trigger Guillain-Barré.
  • The autoimmune reaction in Guillain-Barré is directed against the myelin sheaths that surround the axons of peripheral nerves or the axons (parts of the nerve) themselves. The greatest point of weakness or paralysis can occur days or weeks after the first symptoms occur.
  • Because the signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barré vary, it can be difficult to diagnose the condition in the early stages. A physical exam as well as an examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) obtained from a spinal tap may help aid diagnosis.
  • Treatment of Guillain-Barré syndrome may include plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy. A respirator may be used if the patient requires assistance to breathe. Physical therapy can begin after the patient recovers limb control.
  • The recovery period after a bout of Guillain-Barré may be as little as a few weeks or as long as a few years. About 30% of those with Guillain-Barré may suffer from residual weakness after 3 years.
  • Ongoing research seeks to identify the cause of Guillain-Barré and develop new and better treatments. Since many cases begin after a viral or bacterial infection, researchers are trying to identify how characteristics of these pathogens may be involved in the development of the condition.
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