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Understanding Guillain Barre Syndrome

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 9/30/2009

This article will discuss Guillain Barre Syndrome and what a patient can expect if they develop this syndrome.

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    Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare disorder in which the body's immune system begins to attack the nerves. It affects the peripheral nervous system and is characterized by inflammation and extremity numbness. The numbness can spread quickly throughout the body, resulting in entire-body paralysis. This syndrome only affects approximately two out of every one-hundred thousand people. The exact cause is unknown, however this syndrome tends to be preceded by the stomach flu, a respiratory infection or another similar infectious illness. At its most severe, this syndrome is considered a medical emergency where patients will need to be hospitalized.

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    What are the Symptoms of this Syndrome?

    Loss of sensation or tingling in the legs and feet accompanied by weakness that spreads to the arms and upper body are often the first symptoms. In some cases, just the fingers and toes are affected or the face or arms. In many cases, these symptoms will be insignificant and not cause alarm. Most patients will experience their most severe weakness within the first three weeks. For some patients, the symptoms will rapidly progress and will cause paralysis of the arms, legs and breathing muscles in a matter of hours. The symptoms of this syndrome can include prickling sensations in the toes, fingers or both, tingling or weakness that originate in the legs and spread to the patient's upper body, difficulty breathing, inability to walk to difficulty walking, severely decreased heart rate, severe lower back pain, low blood pressure, trouble with intestinal functions or bladder control, and trouble with facial movement, eye movement, chewing, speaking or swallowing.

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    How is this Syndrome Diagnosed?

    Guillain-Barre syndrome of often troublesome to diagnose when it is in its earliest stages because the signs and symptoms often mimic other neurological disorders and because the symptoms vary so greatly from patient to patient. When this syndrome is suspected the doctor will talk with the patient about their symptoms and take a careful and thorough medical history to try and understand the patient's symptoms. A spinal tap, also referred to as a lumbar puncture, is often used to obtain spinal fluid so that it can be analyzed to look for a specific change that often occurs in patients with this syndrome. Nerve function tests are also commonly performed to determine whether the weakness a patient is experiencing is due to nerve or muscle damage and to assess how the patient's muscles and nerves respond to electrical stimuli (the electrical stimuli is quite small).

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    How is this Syndrome Treated?

    This syndrome cannot be cured, but it can be treated in an effort to decrease its severity. The first method of treatment is plasmapheresis. This procedure may help to slow down the progression of the disease by removing plasma that contains certain harmful antibodies from the body. Intravenous immunoglobulin can be used to replace the damaging antibodies with antibodies that are healthy and not causing further damage.

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    Resources

    Mayo Clinic. (2009). Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Retrieved on September 29, 2009 from Website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/guillain-barre-syndrome/DS00413