Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare disease, which causes the immune system to attack the nerves. The first symptoms include weakness and tingling in the extremities.
The symptoms can rapidly progress and eventually paralyze the entire body. In severe cases the disease poses as a life-threatening medical emergency.
Although the exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is unclear, an infectious disease such as the stomach flu or a respiratory infection precedes most cases.
There is no particular cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome but there are several treatments that can relieve symptoms and speed up recovery. Most people recover from the disease but sometimes there can be lasting effects such as weakness and numbness.
Symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome include:
- Prickling sensations in the fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
- Weakness in the legs that spreads to the upper body
- Unstable walking or inability to walk or climb
- Difficulty with eye or facial movements such as speaking, chewing or swallowing
- Difficulty with bladder control or bowel movement
- Severe cramp-like pain that may get worse at night
- Rapid heart rate
- Low or high blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
The most significant weakness from Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs within 2 to 4 weeks after the start of the symptoms. As the disease progresses the muscle weakness can evolve into paralysis. However, the recovery process usually begins 2 to 4 weeks after weakness plateaus.
Guillain-Barre syndrome can occur in several forms including:
- Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP): AIDP is the most common type of Guillain-Barre syndrome in the U.S. and it is characterized by muscle weakness that begins in the lower part of the body and spreads upward.
- Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS): In this type of Guillain-Barre syndrome the paralysis starts in the eyes and it is also related to unsteady walking. MFS is more common in Asia.
- Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN): These forms of the disease are more frequent in China, Japan and Mexico.
The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is unclear. The condition may follow a respiratory or a digestive tract infection. In rare cases, surgery or immunization can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome.
In AIDP type the protective sheath of the nerves is damaged preventing the nerves from transmitting signals to the brain, which results in weakness, numbness or paralysis.
Risk factors for Guillain-Barre syndrome include:
- Gender: Men are at higher risk of developing the disorder
- Age: Older people have a greater risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome
Triggers of Guillain-Barre syndrome include:
- Campylobacter infection (bacteria found in undercooked poultry)
- Influenza virus
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Mycoplasma pneumonia
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Influenza or childhood vaccinations (only in rare cases)
Guillain-Barre syndrome can cause various complications including:
- Breathing difficulties: The weakness or paralysis can spread to the muscles that control breathing causing difficulties to breathe, which is a potentially fatal complication.
- Heart and blood pressure problems: Guillain-Barre syndrome can cause blood pressure fluctuations and irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
- Residual numbness or other sensations: Minor weakness, numbness or tingling may be experienced after recovery.
- Pain: Approximately 50% of people with the disorder experience severe nerve pain.
- Blood clots: Symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome can result in immobility, which increases the risk of blood clots. Blood thinners and support stockings can reduce the risk of blood clots.
- Problems with bladder and bowel functions: The disorder can lead to sluggish bowel function and urine retention.
- Pressure sores: Pressure sores or bedsores can result from immobility.
- Relapse: About 5% of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome go through a relapse.
Severe symptoms of the disorder increase the risk of serious long-term complications. In rare cases, complications such as respiratory distress syndrome or heart attack can lead to death.