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Guillain-Barre Syndrome – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Pictures

Updated on December 19, 2013

Guillain-Barre syndrome is an abnormal condition characterized by erroneous attack of the nerves in the body by the immune system. Initial symptoms usually include tingling and weakness in the extremities. Such sensations can spread rapidly, ultimately paralyzing the complete body. Extreme cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome requires emergency care and hospitalization.

The precise cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is not known. The disorder however often follows an infectious disease such as the stomach flu or a respiratory illness. Guillain-Barre syndrome is however a rare condition and affects only one or two individuals per 100,000 people.

Guillain-Barre syndrome has no known cure. However, there are many treatment options that can alleviate the symptoms and decrease the duration of the disorder. A majority of Guillain-Barre syndrome patients experience complete recovery. However, some affected individuals may suffer from lingering effects such as numbness, weakness, or fatigue.

Symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome

Guillain-Barre syndrome typically starts with weakness and tingling that commence in the legs and feet and then migrate to the arms and upper body. The symptoms are usually not easily noticeable and can begin in the toes and fingers. The symptoms in some patients may also commence in the arms or the facial area. With the progression of this illness, patients may experience weakness which eventually deteriorates into paralysis.

Some of the common signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome are listed below:

  • ‘Pins and needles’ or prickly sensations in the toes or fingers, or both.
  • Difficulties in walking or wobbly walking
  • Tingling sensations or weakness in the legs that migrate to the upper body
  • Problems in facial and ocular movements, chewing, speaking, or swallowing
  • Intestinal functionality or bladder control may be compromised
  • Extreme pain in the lower back
  • A rapid heart beat
  • Breathing problems
  • Hypertension or low blood pressure

Most Guillain-Barre syndrome patients suffer from severe weakness within 4 weeks after commencement of the signs and symptoms. In certain cases, the symptoms may progress at a rapid rate causing full paralysis of the arms, legs, and respiratory muscles over a period of just a few hours.

Complications of Guillain-Barre syndrome

Guillain-Barre syndrome affects the nerves and may trigger a cascading effect on other body systems such as on the cardiovascular and respiratory functionalities. A few health complications associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome are listed below:

  • Weakness or paralysis can affect the breathing muscles. Patients experiencing breathing problems may be put on a ventilator or a breathing machine in a hospital.
  • Cardiacarrhythmias and fluctuations in blood pressure are common complications of Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Residual numbness, weakness, and tingling sensations may be present. Complete recovery is gradual and can occur over a period of one year or longer. About 20 to 30 percent of affected individuals have an incomplete recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Fifty percent of patients suffer from neuropathic pain. It can be alleviated with painkiller medications
  • Immobility caused due to the illness can increase the risk to blood clots development. Doctors recommend the use of support stockings and blood thinning medicines.
  • Extensive bed rest can also cause formation of bedsores or pressures sores. Frequent repositioning can help prevent them.
  • Retention of urine and slow bowel functionality is another complication of Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Nearly 10 percent of affected individuals are likely to suffer from a relapse.

Early treatment of Guillain-Barre syndrome can reduce the risk to development of long-term serious complications. In rare cases, patients suffering from respiratory and cardiac complications may die.

Causes of Guillain-Barre syndrome

Doctors are not aware about the precise cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome. It has however been observed that about 60 percent of patients seem to suffer form an infection of the digestive tract or the lungs before developing Guillain-Barre syndrome. Immunization, recent surgery, and pregnancy have also been found to have links with development of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Researchers are however unaware of the reasons as to why the infections can cause Guillain-Barre syndrome in some individuals and not in others. Also, there are many instances of the condition that develop without any known triggers.

The immune system performs the function of attacking pathogens and foreign matter that invade the body. In people with Guillain-Barre syndrome, the immune system mistakenly attacks the nerves which transmit signals to the brain. The most prevalent kind of Guillain-Barre syndrome in North America causes damage to the myelin sheath, i.e. the protective layer that covers the nerves. This leads to interference with the process of signaling thereby resulting in numbness, weakness, or paralysis.

Guillain-Barre syndrome can occur in people of all age groups. However, the presence of the below listed risk factors can increase the vulnerability to developing the disease:

  • Infection with the campylobacter bacteria. This bacterium is typically present in undercook food, particularly poultry
  • Young adults and older adults are more susceptible
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome can be triggered due to mycoplasma pneumonia, Epstein-Barr virus, Hodgkin's disease, HIV/AIDS, surgery, influenza virus, mononucleosis, and in rare cases influenza or rabies immunizations.

Treatment of Guillain-Barre syndrome

Some patients may take many months or even many years to fully recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome. A majority of cases however have this general timeline:

  • After the initial symptoms, the illness has a tendency to progressively deteriorate for around 2 weeks.
  • The symptoms plateau inside 4 weeks
  • Recovery commences, which can last for 6 to 12 months. Some patients may take up to 3 years to fully recover.

Guillain-Barre syndrome has no known cure. However, two kinds of treatment methods, namely plasmapheresis and intravenous immunoglobulin, can decrease the severity of the illness and also speed up the recovery process.

  • Plasmapheresis: Also referred to as plasma exchange, this treatment process involves removal of the plasma and its separation from the actual blood cells. Later, the blood cells are added into the body leading to production of additional plasma which compensates for the plasma that was taken out. There are no clear answers as to why this process works. It is however understood that the removal of plasma in turn causes the removal of certain antibodies which are prone to attacking the peripheral nerves.
  • Intravenous immunoglobulin:It involves transfer of healthy antibodies via donated blood. These new antibodies can obstruct the effect of the damaging antibodies that cause Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Other therapies:Physical therapy may be needed after commencement of recovery to regain mobility in the limbs. Training for use of adaptive devices like braces or wheelchair may also be required.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome Pictures


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