Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare condition that causes the immune system to attack the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. It is characterized by numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in the legs, arms, breathing muscles, and face. It can affect all ages.
The exact cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. However in about 70% of people, a recent infection or surgery triggers an autoimmune response. This autoimmune response attacks the peripheral nerves, leading to weakness and a loss of sensation.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is more common in men, and in the those aged 15-35 years and 60-75 years old. Other factors that increase your chance of Guillain-Barré syndrome may include:
The first symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome include:
Symptoms may develop over a period of hours, days, or weeks. They will vary in severity from minimal to total paralysis including respiratory weakness. The symptoms grow progressively worse. Most people experience the greatest weakness during the second or third week.
Related complications include:
Most people fully recover, but others may have residual symptoms, or permanent or disabling problems.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical will be done.
Tests may include:
Treatment aims to reduce the body’s autoimmune response and decrease complications that result from immobility. Hospitalization is important because symptoms may rapidly become more severe, including respiratory failure, heart arrhythmias, and blood pressure instability.
Common treatments include:
During plasmapheresis, blood is removed from your body and passed through a machine that separates blood cells. The separated cells are then returned to your body with new plasma. This procedure may help shorten the course and severity of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Intravenous infusion with immunoglobulin (IVIg) may help reduce the severity of a Guillain-Barré attack. Immunoglobulins are proteins that are naturally produced by the body’s immune system.
In some cases, muscles necessary for breathing become paralyzed. This is treated with immediate emergency support from a mechanical ventilator.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome Foundation International
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Canadian Institute for Health Information
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116744/Amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis-ALS. Updated July 25, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2016.
Guillain-Barre syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116758/Guillain-Barre-syndrome. Updated September 10, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2016.
Vucic S, Kiernan MC, Cornblath DR. Guillain-Barre: an update. J Clinical Neuroscience. 2009;16(6):733-741.
Last reviewed January 2015 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.