First Time User? Sign Up Now
First Time User? Enroll now.
Home > Fitness & Health > Health Library > Guillain-Barré Syndrome
Guillain-Barré syndrome (say "ghee-YAN bah-RAY") is a problem with your nervous system. It causes muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, face, and other parts of your body.
This rare condition can cause paralysis and lead to death. But most people get better and have few lasting problems.
Experts don't know what causes it. They think that the nerves are attacked by your body's own defense system (the immune system). This is called an autoimmune disease.
In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the immune system attacks the covering (myelin sheath) of certain nerves. This causes nerve damage.
It usually begins to affect the nerves after you've had a viral or bacterial infection. Often it is after an infection of the lungs or stomach and intestines.
Infections that may trigger it include:
Symptoms usually start with numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes. Over several days, muscle weakness in the legs and arms develops. After about 4 weeks, most people begin to get better.
You may need to be treated in the hospital for the first few weeks. This is because the condition can be deadly if weakness spreads to muscles that control breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Call your doctor or get help right away if you think you might have Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Your doctor will ask when your symptoms started and how they have changed. He or she also may ask if you've had any recent infections.
Two signs are important in helping your doctor decide if you have Guillain-Barré syndrome:
Your doctor also may do tests, such as a lumbar puncture and a nerve conduction study.
If the diagnosis isn't clear, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the nervous system (neurologist).
This syndrome usually is treated in the hospital. The hospital staff will watch you carefully to be sure you don't get worse or get an infection. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure are carefully tracked. Some people need a ventilator to help them breathe.
In the hospital, you may get a plasma exchange or intravenous immune globulin (IVIG).
These treatments may help your body fight the disease and may speed your recovery if they are used when you first get sick. You may need to stay in the hospital for weeks or longer, until your symptoms have improved.
Sometimes this condition can come back. Both plasma exchange and IVIG therapy may be needed to reduce the severity of a relapse.
You may need 3 to 6 months or longer to recover. And you may have to wait several months before you can return to your regular activities.
Many people have long-term effects, such as numbness in the toes and fingers. In most cases, these problems won't get in the way of your daily life. Some people have more serious problems, such as long-term weakness or balance problems.
Support at home is important during this time. You may need some help with some of your activities and chores until you're stronger.
Regular exercise can help you strengthen your weakened muscles. Talk to your doctor about exercising during your recovery. If you have severe muscle weakness, you may need physical or occupational therapy.
Other Works Consulted
Brannagan TH, Weimer LH (2010). Acquired neuropathies. In LP Rowland, TA Pedley, eds., Merritt's Neurology, 12th ed., pp. 822–837. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Cortese I, et al. (2011). Evidence-based guideline update: Plasmapheresis in neurologic disorders: Report of the Therapeutics and Technology Assessment Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology, 76(3): 294–300.
Hughes RAC, et al. (2003, reaffirmed 2008). Practice parameter: Immunotherapy for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Neurology, 61(6): 736–740.
Hughes RAC, et al. (2012). Intravenous immunoglobulin for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (7).
Patwa HW, et al. (2012). Evidence-based guideline: Intravenous immunoglobulin in the treatment of neuromuscular disorders. Neurology, 78(13): 1009–1015.
Raphaël JC (2012). Plasma exchange for Guillain-Barré syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (7).
Ropper AH, et al. (2014). Diseases of the peripheral nerves. In Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 10th ed., pp. 1310–1390. York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Current as of:
November 20, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineColin Chalk MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology
Current as of: November 20, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Colin Chalk MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.