What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré (ghee-yan bah-ray) syndrome is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The first symptoms include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, often spreading to the arms and upper body. These can increase in intensity until a person is totally paralyzed.

Many people require intensive care during the early course of their illness, especially if a ventilator is required.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is rare. It usually occurs a few days or weeks after a person has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection.

While the most common related infection is bacterial, 60 percent of cases do not have a known cause.

Some cases may be triggered by the influenza virus or by an immune reaction to the influenza virus. Occasionally, surgery or vaccinations will trigger it.

The disorder can develop over the course of hours or days, or it may take three to four weeks. It is not known why Guillain-Barré strikes some people and not others.

Resource

GBS/CIDP Foundation International offers information on Guillain-Barré and Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. 610-667-0131 or toll-free 1-866-224-3301.

Treatment options

Most people recover from even the most severe cases of Guillain-Barré, although some continue to have a degree of weakness.

The most critical part of the treatment for this syndrome consists of keeping the patient's body functioning during recovery of the nervous system. This can sometimes require placing the patient on a ventilator, a heart monitor, or other machines that assist body function.

While there is no known cure for this syndrome, therapies can reduce its severity and accelerate recovery with a number of ways to treat the complications of the disease, including:

  • Plasmapheresis (plasma exchange) mechanically removes autoantibodies from the bloodstream
  • High-dose immunoglobulin therapy is also used to boost the immune system

Researchers hope to understand the workings of the immune system to identify which cells are responsible for carrying out the attack on the nervous system.

Resources

If you are looking for more information on Guillain-Barré syndrome or have a specific question, our information specialists are available business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET.

Additionally, the Reeve Foundation maintains a fact sheet on Guillain-Barré with resources from trusted Reeve Foundation sources. Check out our repository of fact sheets on hundreds of topics ranging from state resources to secondary complications of paralysis.

We encourage you to also reach out to Guillain-Barré support groups and organizations, including:

Source: The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.