Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is also called acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP). It is a neurological disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, the part of the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord. The onset of GBS can be quite sudden and unexpected and requires immediate hospitalization. It can develop over a few days, or it may take up to several weeks with the greatest weakness occurring within the first couple of weeks after symptoms appear.
GBS is rare, affecting about 3,000 people in the U.S. It can affect people at any age and both men and women equally. GBS often develops after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection.
It’s not clear why some people get GBS. What is known is that the body's immune system begins to attack the body itself.
Normally, the cells of the immune system attack only foreign material and invading organisms, but in GBS, the immune system starts to destroy the myelin sheath that surrounds the axons of many nerve cells, and, sometimes, the axons themselves.
When this occurs, the nerves can’t send signals efficiently, the muscles lose their ability to respond to the commands of the brain, and the brain receives fewer sensory signals from the rest of the body. The result is an inability to feel heat, pain, and other sensations.
GBS can occur after a viral infection, surgery, injury, or a reaction to an immunization.
These are the most common symptoms of GBS. But each person may have slightly different symptoms.
The first symptom includes weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. This sometimes spreads to the arms and upper body. A neurological exam usually reveals a loss of all deep tendon reflexes. The symptoms may get worse. In some cases, you may not be able to use your muscles at all. You become paralyzed, and breathing is hard. Your blood pressure and heart function are affected. GBS is a medical emergency and needs to be treated promptly.
Although symptoms can become life-threatening, partial recovery is possible from even the most severe cases of GBS. But you may always have some degree of weakness.
The symptoms of GBS may look like other health conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The signs and symptoms of GBS vary. It can be difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages.
These signs and symptoms are unique to GBS:
To diagnose GBS, you may have the following tests:
Other therapies include hormonal therapy and physical therapy (to increase muscle flexibility and strength).
Through research, new treatments for GBS are continually being identified.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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