Something as simple as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu can trigger Guillain-Barre (gee-YAH-buh-RAY) Syndrome, which is a very rare disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GBS affects about 1 in 100,000 people. An estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year in the United States.
This disorder can strike anybody and can strike quickly, causing pain and even paralysis in only a matter of days.
Guillain-Barre is an autoimmune disorder – a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves.
“It can attack anybody at any time. Generally if you are immunocompromised, if you already have an immune disorder, then your body is more at risk,” said Corpus Christi Medical Center ER Dr. Kim Onufrak.
No matter what the cause, a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome, or GBS, usually means you’re about to go through something really traumatic.
“The symptoms of Guillain-Barre usually start in the lower extremities first then it progress up. You will have the numbness and tingling in lower extremities, in your toes, your feet, and it rapidly progresses up. It is a paralysis. But you can have symptoms that start in the face, you can have numbness and tingling in the face, you can have facial droop which mimics a stroke, you can have blurry vision, loss of vision, and difficulty swallowing. Lots of different symptoms that are nerve related,” said Onufrak.
About 90 percent of people who come down with Guillain-Barre will recover almost fully. But many people who do recover will never fully regain their abilities. In rare instances GBS can lead to death.
“It is not known to be fatal. It can take months to years to recover though. You can have fatigue, just feeling tried all the time, you get weaker a lot easier so it can affect your immune system,” said Onufrak.
People with Guillain-Barre syndrome usually experience their most significant weakness within two to four weeks after symptoms begin.
There’s no known cure for Guillain-Barre Syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness.
Most people recover from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, though some may experience lingering effects from it, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.
Guillain-Barre syndrome often begins with tingling and weakness starting in your feet and legs and spreading to your upper body and arms. In about half of people with the disorder, symptoms begin in the arms or face. As Guillain-Barre Syndrome progresses, muscle weakness can evolve into paralysis.
Signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome may include:
• Difficulty breathing
People with Guillain-Barre Syndrome usually experience their most significant weakness within two to four weeks after symptoms begin.
Once thought to be a single disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome is now known to occur in several forms. The main types are:
• Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP), the most common form in the U.S. The most common sign of AIDP is muscle weakness that starts in the lower part of your body and spreads upward.
• Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN) are less common in the U.S. But AMAN and AMSAN are more frequent in China, Japan and Mexico.
Guillain-Barre syndrome can be difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages. Its signs and symptoms are similar to those of other neurological disorders and may vary from person to person.
Your doctor is likely to start with a medical history and thorough physical examination.
• Nerve conduction studies. Electrodes are taped to the skin above your nerves. A small shock is passed through the nerve to measure the speed of nerve signals.
There’s no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome. But two types of treatments can speed recovery and reduce the severity of the illness:
• Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis). The liquid portion of part of your blood (plasma) is removed and separated from your blood cells. The blood cells are then put back into your body, which manufactures more plasma to make up for what was removed. Plasmapheresis may work by ridding plasma of certain antibodies that contribute to the immune system’s attack on the peripheral nerves.
• Immunoglobulin therapy. Immunoglobulin containing healthy antibodies from blood donors is given through a vein (intravenously). High doses of immunoglobulin can block the damaging antibodies that may contribute to Guillain-Barre syndrome.
You also are likely to be given medication to:
• Relieve pain, which can be severe
Although some people can take months and even years to recover, most people with Guillain-Barre syndrome experience this general timeline:
• After the first signs and symptoms, the condition tends to progressively worsen for about two weeks
Children, who rarely develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, generally recover more completely than adults
When to see a doctor:
Call your doctor if you have mild tingling in your toes or fingers that doesn’t seem to be spreading or getting worse. Seek emergency medical help if you have any of these severe signs or symptoms:
• Tingling that started in your feet or toes and is now moving up your body
• Choking on saliva
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a serious condition that requires immediate hospitalization because it can worsen rapidly. The sooner appropriate treatment is started, the better the chance of a good outcome.