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Guillain-Barre Syndrome by Sarah Minnick

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Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare disorder which involves the immune system attacking the peripheral nervous system.  It can affect any person, at any age, and both sexes are equally prone to it.  The disorder only affects one or two people per 100,000 and the exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but it is not contagious.  The first symptoms typically include tingling in the legs and spreads upward to your upper body and arms.  As the tingling sensations spread throughout the body, it causes muscle weakness and loss of reflexes, which in some cases paralyzes the entire body.  In these cases, the disorder becomes life-threatening and it is considered a medical emergency that requires hospitalization.  Although there is no known cure for the disorder, several treatments can ease the symptoms and reduce the length of the illness.  Most individuals recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome, but they may experience lasting effects from it which may include weakness, numbness, or fatigue.

As previously stated, the most common symptoms include tingling and weakness on both sides of the body starting in the legs that spread to the upper body.  Other possible symptoms may include unsteady walking, difficulty breathing, fast heart rate, difficulty with chewing, swallowing, or eye movement, or severe lower back pain.  After the first symptoms occur, they can progress rapidly over the course of hours, days, or weeks.  The majority of the people who have the disorder usually experience the most significant weakness within two to three weeks after the first symptoms begin.  At about four weeks, the symptoms reach a plateau.  Recovery will then begin and it can take anywhere from six to twelve months to fully recover, but in some cases recovery can take multiple years.

Even though the exact cause of Guillain-Barre is unknown, in over half of the cases reported, the disorder usually occurs after a respiratory or digestive tract infection.  However, scientists know that it causes an autoimmune disease since the body’s immune system begins to attack itself.  Instead of attacking foreign objects that enter into the system, it attacks and destroys the myelin sheath that surrounds the axons of the nerves.  If the myelin sheaths are damaged, the nerves are interfered and they are not able to transmit signals efficiently causing the muscles to lose their capability to respond to the brain’s commands.  This is what causes the tingling and weakness.

There is no known cure for Gillain-Barre syndrome, but there are treatments that may reduce the severity of the illness and may speed up the recovery.  The two types of treatments doctors use to treat this disorder are a plasma exchange (called plasmapheresis) or intravenous immunoglobulin.  The plasma exchange method is a type of blood cleansing that involves removing the liquid portion of the blood, called plasma, and separating it from the actual blood cells.  The blood cells are then returned to the body, without the plasma, and the body will produce more plasma to replace the plasma that was removed.  Scientists believe this method works by removing the antibodies that are involved with the attack on the immune system.  In the intravenous immunoglobulin method, doctors give high doses of immunoglobulin injections that contain healthy antibodies from blood donors.  With these high doses, scientists believe it blocks the damaging antibodies which can decrease the attack on the immune system.  Once the recovery begins, patients will likely need physical therapy to help regain strength and flexibility in the muscles throughout the body.

Guillain-Barre syndrome can be both physically and emotionally difficult on patients due to the sudden and startling symptoms.  With the proper diagnosis and treatments, the patient will typically recover within a few months and get back to feeling healthy.



National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.


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Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/guillain-barre-syndrome/DS00413


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