Doctor's Notes on What Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune nerve disorder associated with a rapid loss of sensation and muscle weakness. Signs and symptoms include weakness and/or numbness on both sides of the body, usually starting in the legs and moving up to the abdomen, arms, and neck. Muscle weakness near involved nerves is often noted. Deep tendon reflexes are decreased or absent, facial and/or throat muscles can be weak, and individuals may have rapid heartbeats, sweating, facial flushing, and weak eye muscles. Some have their respiratory muscles affected. This may require assisted breathing (intubation) and is a medical emergency. Signs and symptoms usually reach peak severity at about 2-3 weeks after the first symptoms develop.
The cause of the disorder is unknown. However, viral infections (for example, cytomegalovirus, herpes, Epstein-Barr, flu) are possible triggers in about two-thirds of newly diagnosed patients. The viruses (and other less frequent problems like surgery or vaccines) are thought to trigger the immune system to attack the nerve structures (myelin sheath that help protect nerve fibers).
What Are the Treatments for Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Treatment of Guillain-Barré syndrome is not a cure but can reduce the severity and recovery time of this syndrome. There are two major treatment protocols for this disease:
- Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis): The liquid portion of your blood is separated from the blood cells, which are put back into your body.
- Immunoglobulin therapy: Immunoglobulin pooled from healthy donors is given by IV to the patient.
These two methods are thought to block or remove damaging antibodies produced in this illness. In addition, patients usually need pain medication and anticlotting drugs. Physical therapy may be needed to help recover.
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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.