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Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), sometimes called Landry’s paralysis or Guillain-Barre-Strohl syndrome, is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system. GBS can cause paralysis and lead to death, but this is rare and most people get better with few lasting problems.

The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is not known, but it is often preceded by an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu. Occasionally, surgery will trigger the syndrome and in rare instances, vaccinations may increase the risk of GBS.

Fortunately GBS is uncommon, affecting only one or two people per 100,000. Guillain-Barre syndrome can affect all age groups, but young adults and elderly adults are at greater risk. Men are 50 percent more likely to be affected than women.

Signs and symptoms

GBS symptoms are characterized by weakness and tingling that is equal on both sides of the body, which usually affects the lower limbs and fingers first, then progresses by ascending up the patient’s body. Patients generally notice weakness in their legs, manifesting as “rubbery legs” and there is a corresponding loss of deep tissue reflexes. As the weakness progresses upward, usually over hours or days, the arms and facial muscles may also become affected.

Pain in the weakened muscles is a common symptom of GBS, presenting as deep aching pain similar to pain from over exercising. Difficulty with bladder and bowel control, rapid heart rate and low or high blood pressure can also develop.

These symptoms can increase in intensity until the muscles cannot be used at all and the patient is almost totally paralyzed. In these cases, the disorder is life-threatening, considered a medical emergency, and the patient is put on a ventilator to assist with breathing.

Seek emergency medical help if you have any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • tingling that started in your feet or toes and is now ascending through your body
  • tingling or weakness that is spreading rapidly
  • tingling that involves both your hands and feet
  • difficulty catching your breath
  • choking on saliva

Most cases of GBS follow this general timeline:

  • from onset of first symptom the condition progressively worsens for about two weeks
  • symptoms and severity reach a plateau within four weeks of onset
  • after four weeks, recovery begins, usually lasting six to 12 months, though for some patients it could take as long as three years