10 Things You Should Know About Guillain–Barré Syndrome – GBS

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10 Things You Should Know About Guillain–Barré Syndrome – GBS

10 Things You Should Know About Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS)
by Cailin Jackson

               Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system (2). Here are 10 things you should know about Guillain-Barré Syndrome to aid in recognizing the signs and symptoms.

1.            Since there is not a specific disease-causing agent involved, Guillain-Barré is not labeled a disease but rather a Syndrome. Most of your reflexes will be lost, such as the knee jerk reflex (3).

2.            No one knows exactly what triggers Guillain-Barré Syndrome. However, it is known that it occurs in people of every age, usually over the age of 30. It often follows a minor infection, usually a lung infection or gastrointestinal infection. Often the symptoms of your original infection have disappeared before the signs of Guillain-Barré even present themselves (2).

3.            One of the first symptoms of GBS is a weakening or tingling sensation in your legs which eventually turns to numbness. The sensations can spread to your arms and upper body affected your respiratory tract. In that instance the patient would be put on a respirator. These symptoms can increase until the patient is totally paralyzed and cannot use any muscles at all (3).

Other symptoms include:

  • Prickling, “pins and needles” sensations in your fingers, toes or both
  • Weakness or tingling sensations in your legs that spread to your upper body
  • Unsteady walking or inability to walk
  • Difficulty with eye movement, facial movement, speaking, chewing or swallowing
  • Severe pain in your lower back
  • Difficulty with bladder control or intestinal functions
  • Very slow heart rate or low blood pressure
  • Difficulty breathing (1).

4.            This disorder can develop within hours or over the course of a month (3). Majority of patients recover from even the most severe cases of GBS. Occasionally patients relapse even years after their recovery.

5.            There are no long term cures for GBS. However doctors have ways to slow down or stop episodes of GBS. For example, plasmapheresis (The basic procedure consists of removal of blood, separation of blood cells from plasma, and return of these blood cells to the body’s circulation, diluted with fresh plasma or a substitute(4)) and therapy are used to aid in recovery.

6.  The following tests may be ordered:

  • Cerebrospinal fluid sample (“spinal tap”) may have increased levels of protein without an increase in white blood cells.
  • ECG may show heart problems in some cases.
  • EMG tests the electrical activity in muscles. It may show that nerves do not react properly to stimulation.
  • Nerve conduction velocity test shows that electrical activity along the nerves is slowed or blocked (2).

7.            The inflammation caused by Guillain-Barré damages parts of your nerves. The inflammation usually affects the myelin sheath, which is what covers your nerves. This is called demyelination, which slows nerve signaling (2).

8.            Guillain-Barré can be triggered by the following:

  • Most commonly, infection with campylobacter, a type of bacteria often found in undercooked food, especially poultry
  • Surgery
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • Mononucleosis
  • HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
  • Rarely, rabies or influenza immunizations (1).

9.            Scientists are working to develop new treatments and causes for GBS. We know what GBS does and what is happening inside but we don’t know why it happens in the people that it does and what causes it.

10.         Other treatments are directed at preventing complications:

  • Blood thinners may be used to prevent blood clots.
  • If the diaphragm is weak, breathing support or even a breathing tube and ventilator may be needed.
  • Pain is treated aggressively with anti-inflammatory medicines and narcotics, if needed.
  • Proper body positioning or a feeding tube may be used to prevent choking during feeding if the muscles for swallowing are weak (2).


1. Guillain-Barre syndrome. (2009, May 30). Retrieved March 20, 2011, from Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER):

2. Hoch, D. B., Vorvick, L., & Zieve, D. (2009, June 24). AARP Health Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 18, 2011, from Guillain-Barre Syndrome:

3. NINDS Guillain-Barré Syndrome Information Page. (2010, May 6). Retrieved March 20, 2011, from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

4. plasmapheresis. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2011, from The Free Dictionary :


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