By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a neurological, autoimmune condition characterized by rapidly developing muscle weakness in affected individuals. The syndrome usually follows a period of sickness such as a viral or bacterial infection in the patient.
The patient will initially have a combination of tingling, pain, or numbness in their arms and legs. This can then progress into more serious muscle weakness in their limbs or other parts of their body, which can take up to a few days to a few weeks in most people.
In this syndrome, the body’s own antibodies attack its peripheral nervous system - the nerves and ganglia in the body that are outside of the brain and spinal cord. This network is essential for the mobility of muscles in the body. As this network begins to malfunction, the muscles involved in movement of arms, legs or other body parts such as the eyes are affected, resulting in muscle weakness. Sometimes a patient is unable to swallow food because the muscles used for this function become weak and in some other patients, speech can also be affected.
The progression of weakness can leave the patient unable to walk and perform simple tasks independently, leading to temporary paralysis of face, arms and legs. There can also be coordination problems. The syndrome does not affect every person in the same way. There are different types of the syndrome and depending on the type each patient is affected by, they will find that specific areas of their bodies do not work as they should. In some cases, the arms and legs are not affected and in about 8% of the cases, the weakness only affects the patient’s legs. At times, even though the limbs are weak, the patient can still have normal reflexes. Although it is rare, some patients can also experience problems with digestion and bladder control.
Weakened respiratory muscles can, in some cases, lead to respiratory failure, which can be aggravated in patients with lung diseases such as pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Blurred or double vision is also a common symptom of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Some patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome can experience blood pressure issues. Their blood pressure can change quite dramatically. This can result in dangerous complications such as an irregular heart beat or the heart stopping beating altogether. The patient may need the help of a pacemaker to keep their heart pumping blood around the body.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is mostly triggered in a patient by a bacterial or viral infection such as gastroenteritis, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, Hepatitis E, varicella zoster, mycoplasma pneumonia or influenza. Most recently it has been linked with the Zika virus infection, a disease spread by mosquitoes, but more research is being carried out to determine the nature of the link. The initial infection can leave the patient’s system very weak for fighting off the effects of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Although vaccinations such as the swine flu vaccine were considered to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome in the past, several studies have shown that the syndrome is not caused by vaccinations.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc
Last Updated: May 18, 2016