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Guillain Barré Syndrome

Guillain Barré Syndrome

Guillain Barré Syndrome is a rare but serious disease of the peripheral nervous system.


What is the peripherals nervous system?

The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that control the body's senses and movements. In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the body's immune system attacks these nerves, causing them to become swollen and inflamed.


Inflammation of the peripheral nerves leads to a tingly, numbing sensation in the arms and legs. This can eventually result in a short-term loss of feeling and movement (temporary paralysis).


What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?

The exact cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unclear and there is no way to pinpoint who is most at risk from the condition. However, in most cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, the person affected will have had a viral or bacterial infection a few weeks before getting the condition. It is likely that the infection causes the immune system to attack the body's own nerves.


Who is affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome affects about 1,500 people in the UK every year. It is slightly more common in men than women and can affect people of any age, including children.


What is the treatment?

If you have Guillain-Barré syndrome, you will initially be treated in hospital as an emergency, and your respiration rate (breathing) will be carefully monitored.


If you have breathing problems, you will be carefully monitored in a high-dependency or intensive care unit, where you may be put on a ventilator (a machine that helps you to breathe).


The two main treatments to reduce the severity of Guillain-Barré syndrome and to help you recover more quickly, are:

  • Intravenous immunoglobulin
  • Plasma exchange

Intravenous immunoglobulin is slightly safer and much easier to give than plasma exchange.


Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg): Immunoglobulin is another name for antibodies, the proteins in your blood that are produced by your immune system to destroy harmful bacteria and viruses. Intravenous immunoglobulin involves administering high doses of healthy immunoglobulin, from blood donors. This can block and destroy the harmful antibodies.


Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis): Plasma is the clear, yellowish fluid part of the blood. Plasma exchange treatment involves removing the plasma and separating it from the blood cells. The blood cells are then put back into your body without the harmful plasma cells that attack the nerves. Your blood cells will then go on to produce healthy plasma to replace what was taken.


What is the outlook?

Most people (8 out of 10) with Guillain-Barré syndrome make a full recovery within a few weeks or months and do not have any further problems. Some people may take longer to recover and there is a possibility of permanent nerve damage.


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Brain and neurology guide: conditions and treatments