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 disease in which the body attacks its own tissue; in this disease, the tissue is the myelin that covers nerve fibers 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 respiratory failure can occur.

While doctors don't know why, Guillain-Barré syndrome often occurs after colds and stomach flu. The disease can progress slowly over a few weeks or can rapidly cause paralysis of the arms, legs, and chest muscles within hours. The symptoms are pretty non-specific when they begin, perhaps a little tingling in the feet and hands. The tingling doesn't spread, but soon symmetric weakness or paralysis can begin. It most often starts in the legs and spreads upwards to the trunk and the head. There may be problems with vision and swallowing as a variety of muscles fail. The big deal, though, is weakness of the diaphragm and rib muscles that allow breathing to happen.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014