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Prisma Health Children's Hospital–Midlands

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HomePediatric SpecialtiesRehabilitation MedicineGuillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare disorder that causes your immune system to attack your peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS nerves connect your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body. Damage to these nerves makes it hard for them to transmit signals. As a result, your muscles have trouble responding to your brain. The exact cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. It can occur a few days or weeks after the person has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. Occasionally, surgery will trigger the syndrome.

Guillain-Barré syndrome has a sudden and rapid, unexpected onset. The first symptom is usually weakness or a tingling feeling in your legs. The feeling can spread to your upper body. In severe cases, you become almost paralyzed. This is life-threatening. You might need a respirator to breathe. Symptoms usually worsen over a period of weeks and then stabilize. Most people reach the stage of greatest weakness within the first 2 weeks after symptoms appear, and by the third week of the illness 90 percent of all individuals are at their weakest. The recovery period may be as little as a few weeks or as long as a few years.

Guillain-Barré can be hard to diagnose. Possible tests include nerve tests and a spinal tap. Most people recover. Recovery can take a few weeks to a few years. Treatment can help symptoms, and may include medicines or a procedure called plasma exchange.

Treatment

There is no known cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome, but therapies can lessen the severity of the illness and accelerate the recovery in most individuals. People with GBS are usually admitted and treated in a hospital's intensive care unit. Plasmapheresis (also known as plasma exchange) and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy (IVIg) are used. Plasmapheresis seems to reduce the severity and duration of the Guillain-Barré episode. In IVIg therapy, doctors give intravenous injections of the proteins the immune system naturally makes to attack invading organisms.  Both treatments are equally effective if started within two weeks of onset of symptoms.

Supportive care is needed to address the many complications of paralysis as the body recovers and damaged nerves begin to heal. This can sometimes require placing the person on a ventilator, a heart monitor, or other machines that assist body function. Many children require a comprehensive, interdisciplinary inpatient rehabilitation program to maximize recovery and function after the acute illness is treated. Pediatric physiatrists prescribe programs, therapies, medications, and equipment to help maximize recovery and function in an inpatient rehabilitation program, and throughout early adulthood.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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