What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

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  • What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

In some cases, people who came from a viral or bacterial infection, feel weakness or tingling in the feet or legs that progresses or what is called GBS or Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Guillain-Barre (pronounced “ghee-yan bah-ray”) Syndrome (GBS) is a very rare autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nerves which connect the brain and spinal cord with the rest of the body.

It affects only about one person in 100,000 and at any age but the incidence tends to increase with age and men are more commonly affected than women.

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What causes it?

The exact cause of GBS is not known, but it usually presents a few days or weeks after a viral or bacterial viral infection. The most commonly identified trigger is gastrointestinal infection after food poisoning. Recently, some countries have reported an increased incidence of GBS following infection with the Zika virus. It is important to note that GBS is not contagious.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms typically appear as weakness or tingling in the feet or legs and progresses up the body, but may also start in the arms and progress downwards. Symptoms may take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to progress. In the worst case, this muscle weakness can lead to almost total body paralysis.

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Other symptoms of GBS can include:

  • jerky, uncoordinated movements
  • severe aches and cramps
  • unsteady walking or inability to walk or climb up stairs
  • numbness
  • muscle aches, pains or cramps
  • prickling sensations in the fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness
  • breathing difficulties
  • loss of bladder control or bowel function
  • low or high blood pressure
  • rapid heart rate
  • difficulty with eye or facial movements, including speaking or eating

Diagnosis

GBS can be quite tricky to diagnose because the symptoms can vary considerably and may even point to another illness or condition. Doctors will rely on various tests including:

  • physical examinations
  • muscle strength tests
  • muscle activity tests
  • reflex tests
  • nerve conduction velocity tests
  • spinal tap

Treatment and Recovery

There is no known cure for GBS and recovery can take anywhere between six months to over two years. After diagnosis, treatment is carried out in a hospital so that the patient can be carefully monitored to make sure breathing and other vital functions are maintained. Immediate treatment is critical as it can worsen rapidly.

In addition, there are two main treatment options available. These treatments target the antibodies, which are infection-fighting proteins, in the blood that are reacting to the peripheral nerves and attacking them.

1. Plasmapheresis or plasma exchange

Plasma is the fluid found in blood that transports blood cells and platelets around the body.

During plasma exchange, blood is taken from the patient, the harmful plasma cells that are damaging the nerves are removed and then the remaining red blood cells are returned to the body. The patient’s blood cells will then start to produce healthy plasma to replace the harmful plasma that was removed.

2. Intravenous Gammaglobulin (IVIG)

Immunoglobulin, or antibodies, are proteins produced by the immune system to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. During IVIG, healthy immunoglobulin is taken from blood donors and given to the patient intravenously. The healthy antibodies will block and destroy the harmful antibodies attacking the nerves.

Scientists are working to develop new treatments and refine existing ones.

Most patients (80-90%) make a full recovery from GBS. Up to five percent of people experience a relapse.

Should you be concerned?

Definitely see your doctor if you have mild tingling in your extremities that appear to be spreading or worsening. Seek immediate emergency medical assistance if you experience any of these severe signs or symptoms:

  • Tingling that began in your feet or toes and is now moving up your body
  • Tingling or weakness that’s spreading rapidly throughout your body
  • You have difficulty catching your breath or shortness of breath when lying flat
  • You have difficulty swallowing and are choking on saliva.

If you become concerned about any symptoms, please seek immediate medical attention. We have some hotlines and suggested websites for further information and advice.

SAHM takes no responsibility for any illness, injury or death caused by misuse of this information. All information provided is correct at time of publication.

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