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Guillain-Barre syndrome

2-minute read

What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome (pronounced ghee-yan bah-ray) is a rare illness in which the body's immune system attacks the nerves connecting your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body.

The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is not known, but it usually comes on after an infection. Occasionally it is triggered by surgery. It causes weakness, numbness or paralysis. Most people with this nervous system disorder need treatment in hospital for some time, but most recover well.

Antibodies in the immune system attack and damage the nerves. When the immune system attacks the body, it is called an auto-immune response.

What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome?

It usually begins with tingling or weakness in the legs. Sometimes, it begins as trouble moving your eyes or face.

It spreads, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, through most of the body.

Other signs and symptoms include:

  • difficulty walking
  • difficulty moving your eyes or face
  • difficulty swallowing
  • severe pain
  • difficulty controlling the bladder or bowel
  • a fast heart rate
  • low or high blood pressure
  • difficulty breathing
  • blurred vision

How is Guillain-Barre syndrome diagnosed?

If you think you may have Guillain-Barre syndrome, your doctor will talk to you and examine you. You may be referred to a neurologist and be asked to have tests to see how well your nerves are working. You may also be asked to have a lumbar puncture, in which a needle is put into your lower back to check the fluid around your spine and brain.

How is Guillain-Barre syndrome treated?

In the early stages, a person with Guillain-Barre syndrome may need to be on a ventilator in intensive care to help them breathe.

With time, it usually gradually improves. Most people are walking again within 6 months.

Guillain-Barre syndrome can be treated with:

  • plasma exchange, which involves removing part of the blood and replacing it with plasma from the blood bank
  • intravenous immunoglobulin therapy — using antibodies from blood donors to alter the abnormal immune response
  • medicines to relieve pain and prevent blood clots
  • physiotherapy

Most people recover — some within a few weeks, and others in a couple of years. Some people have symptoms for life.

Visit the Brain Foundation website for more information about Guillain-Barre syndrome.

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Last reviewed: January 2020

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