Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare nerve disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system includes the nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the limbs, as well as nerve coverings, called myelin, that insulate the peripheral nerves. These nerves help control muscle movement and carry signals for sensations from the body to the brain.
Causes and Risk Factors of Guillain-Barré Syndrome
Doctors don't know what causes Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS).
Many people with GBS experience a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection or Zika virus approximately six weeks before GBS symptoms start.
- Being infected with Campylobacter jejuni, which causes diarrhea
- Certain vaccinations
- Bone marrow transplant
How Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome Diagnosed?
Before diagnosing Guillain-Barré syndrome, your doctor will perform a complete physical and neurological exam to rule out other illnesses that could be causing your symptoms.
Your doctor may then recommend additional tests that can help detect and measure changes in nerve function.
Spinal tap Your doctor will insert a needle into your lower back and remove a small amount of spinal fluid for testing.
Electromyography Thin needles are inserted into certain muscles to measure nerve activity in the muscles.
Nerve conduction You'll receive small shocks from electrodes taped to your skin, allowing your doctor to measure nerve function.
Treatment and Medication Options for Guillain-Barré Syndrome
There is no cure for GBS, but there are treatments that can reduce the severity of the illness and help speed up recovery.
People with GBS are typically treated in a hospital. Some require breathing assistance, a heart monitor, or other medical devices to assist with basic bodily functions while their nerves recover.
Two main types of therapies are used to treat GBS:
Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) In this procedure, blood is removed from the body and processed so that the blood cells are separated from the liquid portion of blood. The blood cells are then returned to the body. Plasma exchange appears to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms in some people with GBS.
Prevention of Guillain-Barré Syndrome
Complications of Guillain-Barré Syndrome
In very severe cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, muscle weakness may impair your ability to breathe. Some people with GBS need a breathing tube and machine to help them breathe.
- Minor weakness, numbness, or tingling
- Recurring nerve pain
- Sluggish bowels, or the inability to completely empty the bladder
- Blood pressure fluctuations
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Blood clots
- Pressure sores
Related Conditions and Causes of Guillain-Barré Syndrome
- Influenza virus
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Zika virus
- Hepatitis A, B, C, and E
- Mycoplasma pneumonia
- Campylobacter infection
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- COVID-19 infection
Resources We Love
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, NINDS conducts and funds research on brain and nervous system disorders. On their website, you can find information about the latest research and treatment options for a number of disorders, including Guillain-Barré.
In addition to providing clear, concise information on the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of Guillain-Barré, the Mayo Clinic also offers advice on how best to prepare for an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of this condition.
Additional reporting by Lindsey Konkel.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. March 16, 2020.
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Mayo Clinic. September 17, 2020.
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Harvard Medical School. July 2019.
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 20, 2019.