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Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a neurological disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system. This is 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 following 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.
The following are the most common symptoms of GBS. However, each person may experience symptoms differently.
The first symptoms include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, which, sometimes, spreads to the arms and upper body. The symptoms may increase in severity. In some cases the muscles can’t be used at all, you become paralyzed, breathing is difficult, and blood pressure and heart function are affected. This is a medical emergency.
Although symptoms can become life-threatening, partial recovery is possible from even the most severe cases of GBS. However, you may always have some degree of weakness.
The symptoms of GBS may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
The signs and symptoms of GBS vary and 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:
Specific treatment for GBS will be determined by your health care provider based on:
There is no known cure for GBS. The goal of treatment is to prevent breathing problems and relieve symptoms. You will need to be hospitalized for treatment. Medications are used to control pain and other conditions that may be present. In addition, treatments, such as plasmapheresis or immunoglobulin administration, may be used to suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation caused by the immune system’s response to the disease.
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 health care provider:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.