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Guillain-Barré Syndrome: When the Immune System Attacks Your Nerves

    Guillain-Barré Syndrome: When the Immune System Attacks Your Nerves

    What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

    Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare disease wherein the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, or the nerves connected to the different organs and limbs.

    Antibodies attack the parts of the nerve that conducts electrical impulses, specifically the myelin sheath and the axon. This causes paralysis and weakness in the muscles.

    Guillain-Barré syndrome is not inherited nor is it contagious. The disease is often triggered by an acute viral or bacterial infection. Respiratory and gastrointestinal infections can cause GBS. This disease can also be triggered by pregnancy or a surgical procedure.

    GBS is more common in people who are aged 30 to 50. It is estimated that about 2-8 people out of 100,000 have this disease.

    Guillain-Barré syndrome is life-threatening and should be monitored and treated immediately. Most people, even with severe cases of GBS, recover from the disease but there are some instances when nerve damage becomes permanent. Recovery may take up to two years.

    Causes of Guillain-Barré syndrome

    The cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is not yet known. The majority of the people diagnosed with GBS had a respiratory infection or diarrhea before they started developing symptoms.

    It is said that GBS is triggered by infections. When a bacterial or viral infection occurs, the immune system normally produces antibodies that help the body fight off the infection. In people with GBS, these antibodies mistakenly attack the nerves instead.

    Symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome

    Guillain-Barré syndrome symptoms are caused by the inability of the nerves to effectively and efficiently transmit signals to the brain.

    Symptoms vary widely but muscle weakness and numbness are common. GBS symptoms progress rapidly and would take only a few hours before symptoms worsen. Weakness in the muscles that worsen over several days is also common.

    Symptoms include:

    Numbness and tingling due to Guillain-Barré syndrome

    Includes numbing and a sensation like the prickling of pins that start in the hands or feet. Children might also experience pain

    Muscle weakness

    Weakness starts in the legs and spreads to the arms. The person might have difficulty walking and using their arms for reaching out.

    Difficult balancing

    A person will find it difficult to coordinate movement and would appear unsteady or out of balance.


    The muscles responsible for swallowing become weak, causing difficulty in drinking. This may also cause coughing or choking on food.

    Alternating between hypotension and hypertension

    The disease can impair the body’s ability to control blood pressure.

    Difficulty breathing

    The muscles in the lungs are weakened or paralyzed


    The muscles in the eyes are impaired, causing the eyes not to converge and diverge properly. This results in double vision.

    Nervous System Disorders: All You Need to Know


    The doctor will have to conduct a physical exam to check on muscle weakness, impaired reflexes, and body pain. Other tests include:

    • Lumbar Puncture – A sample of the cerebrospinal fluid is taken to check if fluid protein is elevated, without an increase in cell count.
    • Electromyography- To assess electrical activity in the muscles
    • Nerve conduction velocity – To check how electric signals pass through the nerves

    Other tests are also needed to rule out drugs, deficiency, and cancers that might cause the same symptoms.

    Treatment of Guillain-Barré syndrome

    There is no cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Treatments for the disease manage the severity of the illness and relieve symptoms. Therapy is also used to regain muscle function.

    • Plasmapheresis – A machine removes blood from the body and separates the plasma from the rest of the blood. The plasma is treated or replaced to remove harmful antibodies. The blood is then returned to the body.
    • High dose immunoglobulin therapy – Immunoglobulins are antibodies that help fend off infection and diseases. High doses of immunoglobulins can block antibodies that cause Guillain-Barré syndrome.
    • Supportive care – The blood pressure of patients experiencing difficulty in breathing and abnormal heart rates should be monitored. If breathing becomes too difficult, a ventilator can be used to aid in breathing. Medication can also be used to alleviate pain and reduce the risk of blood clots. A plastic tube may also be inserted through the nose and into the stomach to aid in eating and drinking. Physical therapy is also needed to keep the joints healthy and regain muscle strength and function. This is important for patients experiencing some form of paralysis
    • Occupational and vocational therapy – Patients recovering from GBS, especially those who have permanent nerve damage, would need therapy to cope with the damage. Supportive devices might also be used to assist in normal functioning.

    Key takeaway

    Guillain-Barré syndrome is a type of autoimmune disease wherein antibodies attack the nerves. This causes muscle dysfunction throughout the body. The cause of GBS is not yet known but it is often triggered by viral and bacterial infections. Majority of GBS patients recover from the disease through proper treatment, but there are some instances when nerve damage is permanent.

    Learn more about Other Brain and Nervous System Issues here.


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    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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    Written by Hazel Caingcoy Updated May 04, 2021
    Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
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