Guillain-Barré syndrome

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 11, 2016
StartDiseasesGuillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare but debilitating disorder of the immune system. It is characterized by weakness, numbness, and intense fatigue. Usually first noticed following an infectious illness, the syndrome may be extreme but patients most often recover.


Definition & Facts

Guillain-Barré syndrome usually appears in patients after a stomach flu, respiratory disease or other infection. Its exact cause is unknown and much is still being learned about this autoimmune disease.

As part of Guillain-Barré syndrome, the immune system attacks the myelin sheaths protecting the body's nerves. Those affected first notice weakness and tingling in their arms and legs. This spreads throughout the body and causes paralysis. Some people require emergency treatment and others must be hospitalized.

As with other autoimmune disorders, Guillain-Barré presents in a variety of forms and these variants of Guillain-Barré include:

Symptoms & Complaints

Tingling and weakness in the extremities are the first signs most people with Guillain-Barré syndrome experience. This usually starts in the feet and legs, then spreading to the upper body and arms. Around 10 percent of GBS patients first have this tingling in the arms or face. Paralysis can occur as the syndrome progresses.

Signs and symptoms commonly experienced by people with Guillain-Barré syndrome are:

Patients who suffer from Guillain-Barré tend to notice their worst weakness at about two to four weeks after onset of symptoms. When weakness plateaus, improvement usually starts becoming noticeable in about two weeks to a month. Slow recovery of about six to 12 months usually occurs with some requiring as many as three years to make a full recovery.


The precise cause of this syndrome is not clear, although Guillain-Barré often shows itself within a short period following a digestive tract or respiratory illness. Surgery and immunization issues have also been known to trigger the syndrome. There are several risk factors associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome as well as populations that may be more susceptible to developing the syndrome than others. These include:

Diagnosis & Tests

Guillain-Barré syndrome is not easy to diagnose. There are many neurological disorders with similar symptoms. A medical history and physical examination is where fact-finding begins followed by the possibility of tests which may include:

Treatment & Therapy

Although Guillain-Barré syndrome cannot be cured through medical treatment, there are options which help induce recovery and lessen severity. Those include:

Both of these treatments are of equal positive effect. Generally, only one or the other will be applied. Medication may also be prescribed to relieve pain and prevent blood clots. Quite often, GBS patients also require physical therapy or assistance. This may include motion therapies to improve flexibility and strength, training in use of adaptive devices like wheelchairs, and exercise therapies to help with fatigue.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Guillain-Barré syndrome is still a medical mystery. There is so much not known about it, including how GBS is acquired. This also means that scientists do not yet know how it may be prevented.

Medical researchers are working diligently on discovery of new treatments, as well as in refinement of existing methods of treating the syndrome. The immune system suffers from a multitude of disorders similar to Guillain-Barré syndrome, so there are parallels between research for those illnesses and this one. One aspect of research includes investigation into the inner workings of the immune system to determine which cells initiate the attack on the body's own healthy nervous system.

Because viral infections and bacterial infections tend to occur prior to onset of Guillain-Barré syndrome, this suggests that these viruses or bacteria are triggering the immune system's malfunction. Such characteristics of these infections are being sought to help unlock the pathway between a patient's virus or bacterial illness and onset of their Guillain-Barré syndrome.