Guillain-Barre syndrome symptoms occur when your immune system attacks your nerves, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis. Learn more.
It starts out with a tingling or prickly sensation in your fingers and toes. That’s the first symptom of Guillian-Barre syndrome. Unfortunately, that first Guillian-Barre syndrome symptom can progress rapidly. Other Guillian-Barre syndrome symptoms to watch for include:
Muscle weakness in your legs that move to your upper body and progressively worsens
- Having trouble walking
- Having difficulty moving your eyes and face
- Having difficulty chewing, talking, or swallowing
- Experiencing severe lower back pain
- No control of your bladder
- A rapid heart rate
- Having difficulty breathing
- Experiencing paralysis
What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in your peripheral nervous system. This can cause muscle weakness and even paralysis. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Guillain-Barre affects 1 in 100,000 Americans.
What causes Guillain-Barre syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome causes are unknown. What we do know is that Guillian-Barre syndrome often occurs after a viral or bacterial infection. It can stem from a stomach flu or a lung infection.
How do doctors diagnose Guilllian-Barre syndrome?
Since Guilllian-Barre syndrome symptoms vary and are similar to other diseases, it can be difficult to diagnose. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your specific symptoms and your medical history. The following tests will help narrow down and confirm a diagnosis:
- Get a spinal tap. Your physician will take a small amount of fluid (it’s called cerebrospinal fluid) from your spine in your lower back. Your doctor will test this fluid for protein levels. If higher than normal protein levels are found, you may have Guillain-Barre syndrome.
- Your doctor may perform an electromyography, which tests your nerves to see if your muscle weakness is caused by nerve or muscle damage.
- Nerve conduction tests are another way to find out if you have Guillian-Barre syndrome. This tests how your nerves and muscles respond to small electrical pulses.
How do you treat Guillain-Barre syndrome?
While there is no cure for Guillian-Barre syndrome, people who get the illness usually make a full recovery. Unfortunately, recovery takes time — anywhere from several weeks to several years. Guillain-Barre syndrome treatment will reduce the severity of your symptoms and shorten the length of your illness.
Often people with the disease are admitted to a hospital for close observation, since untreated symptoms can get worse and be fatal. Severe cases lead to paralysis, which can affect the diaphragm or chest muscles. If that occurs, breathing can be difficult.
Since there is no cure, your doctor will lessen the severity of your Guillain-Barre syndrome symptoms while your body recovers. When this is happening, treatment may include plasma exchange; also called plasmapheresis, this is when antibodies that attack the nerves in your body are removed from your blood by a machine. Then the machine returns the blood to your body without the antibodies.
Another Guillian-Barre syndrome treatment is intravenous immunoglobulin. If you chose this option, you will be given high doses of immunoglobulin to block antibodies that cause Guillain-Barre. Immunoglobulin is made up of normal, healthy antibodies and it comes from donors.
In addition to either plasmapheresis or immunoglobulin, you will be given medication to relieve pain and prevent blood clots. Your doctor will also recommend physical therapy.
Guillain-Barre syndrome prognosis
It’s possible that weakness and paralysis can spread, making it difficult to breathe. If this happens, you may need a respirator. It’s also possible to experience weakness and numbness after recovery, have heart or blood pressure problems, experience some pain, or develop blood clots or a bladder infection.
The good news is that most Guillian-Barre syndrome patients can make a full recovery.
March 26, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN