Guillain-Barré syndrome (patient information)

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Guillain-Barré syndrome


What are the symptoms?

What are the causes?

How common is GBS?

When to seek urgent medical care?


Treatment options

Where to find medical care for Guillain-Barré syndrome?

What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?

What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?

Possible complications

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Alexandra M. Palmer


Guillain-Barré syndrome is a serious disorder that occurs when the body's defense (immune) system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. This leads to nerve inflammation that causes muscle weakness.

What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Symptoms of Guillain-Barré can get worse very quickly. It may take only a few hours to reach the most severe symptoms, but weakness increasing over several days is also common. {{#ev:youtube|opA_X34IoWk}}

Muscle weakness or the loss of muscle function (paralysis) affects both sides of the body. In most cases, the muscle weakness starts in the legs and then spreads to the arms. This is called ascending paralysis.

Patients may notice tingling, foot or hand pain, and clumsiness. If the inflammation affects the nerves to the diaphragm, and there is weakness in those muscles, the person may need breathing assistance.

Typical symptoms include:

Additional symptoms may include:

Emergency symptoms (seek immediate medical help):

What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder (the body's immune system attacks itself). Exactly what triggers Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. The syndrome may occur at any age, but is most common in people of both sexes between ages 30 and 50.

It often follows a minor infection, usually a lung infection or gastrointestinal infection. Usually, signs of the original infection have disappeared before the symptoms of Guillain-Barre begin.

Guillain-Barré syndrome causes inflammation that damages parts of nerves. This nerve damage causes tingling, muscle weakness, and paralysis. The inflammation usually affects the nerve's covering (myelin sheath). Such damage is called demyelination. Demyelination slows nerve signaling. Damage to other parts of the nerve can cause the nerve to stop working.

Guillain-Barré syndrome may occur along with viral infections such as:

It may also occur with other medical conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus or Hodgkin's disease.

Some people may get Guillain-Barré syndrome after a bacterial infection or certain vaccinations (such as rabies and swine flu). A similar syndrome may occur after surgery, or when critically ill.

Who is at highest risk?

  • An estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people, or 1-2 cases for every 100,000 people, develop GBS each year in the US.
  • Most cases of GBS tend to occur for no known reason, and true “clusters” of cases of GBS are very unusual.
  • If you have concerns about the number of GBS cases in your area, notify the state or local health department in the state where the cases happen.
  • CDC collaborates with state and local health departments to investigate reports of possibly unusually large numbers or “clusters” of GBS cases.

When to seek urgent medical care?

Seek immediate medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:


A history of increasing muscle weakness and paralysis may be a sign of Guillain-Barré syndrome, especially if there was a recent illness.

A medical exam may show muscle weakness and problems with involuntary (autonomic) body functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. The examination may also show that reflexes, such as the "knee jerk," are decreased or missing.

There may be signs of decreased breathing (caused by paralysis of the breathing muscles).

The following tests may be ordered:

Treatment options

There is no cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome. However, many treatments are available to help reduce symptoms, treat complications, and speed up recovery.

When symptoms are severe, the patient will need to go to the hospital for breathing help, treatment, and physical therapy.

A method called plasmapheresis is used to remove proteins, called antibodies, from the blood. The process involves taking blood from the body, usually from the arm, pumping it into a machine that removes the antibodies, then sending it back into the body.

High-dose immunoglobulin therapy (IVIg) is another treatment used to reduce the severity and length of Guillain-Barré symptoms. In this case, the immunoglobulins are added to the blood in large quantity, blocking the antibodies that cause inflammation.

Other treatments are directed at preventing complications.

Where to find medical care for Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Directions to Hospitals Treating Guillain-Barré syndrome]


What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?

Recovery can take weeks or years. Most people survive and recover completely. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 30% of patients still have some weakness after 3 years. Mild weakness may persist for some people.

A patient's outcome is most likely to be very good when the symptoms go away within 3 weeks after they first started.

Possible complications


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