Guillain-Barre (gee-YAH-buh-RAY) syndrome is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your extremities are usually the first symptoms.
These sensations can quickly spread, eventually paralyzing your whole body. In its most severe form Guillain-Barre syndrome is a medical emergency. Most people with the condition must be hospitalized to receive treatment.
The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome is unknown. But it is often preceded by an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu.
There’s no known cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness. Most people recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome, though some may experience lingering effects from it, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.
The exact cause of Guillain-Barre syndrome isn’t known. The disorder usually appears days or weeks after a respiratory or digestive tract infection. Rarely, recent surgery or immunization can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome.
In Guillain-Barre syndrome, your immune system — which usually attacks only invading organisms — begins attacking the nerves. In AIDP, the most common form of Guillain-Barre syndrome in the U.S., the nerves’ protective covering (myelin sheath) is damaged. The damage prevents nerves from transmitting signals to your brain, causing weakness, numbness or paralysis.
Guillain-Barre syndrome often begins with tingling and weakness starting in your feet and legs and spreading to your upper body and arms. In about 10 percent of people with the disorder, symptoms begin in the arms or face. As Guillain-Barre syndrome progresses, muscle weakness can evolve into paralysis.
Signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome may include:
- Prickling, “pins and needles” sensations in your fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
- Weakness in your legs that spreads to your upper body
- Unsteady walking or inability to walk or climb stairs
- Difficulty with eye or facial movements, including speaking, chewing or swallowing
- Severe pain that may feel achy or cramp-like and may be worse at night
- Difficulty with bladder control or bowel function
- Rapid heart rate
- Low or high blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
People with Guillain-Barre syndrome usually experience their most significant weakness within two to four weeks after symptoms begin. Recovery usually begins two to four weeks after weakness plateaus.
Once thought to be a single disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome is now known to occur in several forms. The main types are:
- Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP), the most common form in the U.S. The most common sign of AIDP is muscle weakness that starts in the lower part of your body and spreads upward.
- Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS), in which paralysis starts in the eyes. MFS is also associated with unsteady gait. MFS occurs in about 5 percent of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome in the U.S. but is more common in Asia.
- Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN)and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN), which are less common in the U.S. but more frequent in China, Japan and Mexico.
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if you have mild tingling in your toes or fingers that doesn’t seem to be spreading or getting worse. Seek emergency medical help if you have any of these severe signs or symptoms:
- Tingling that started in your feet or toes and is now moving up your body
- Tingling or weakness that’s spreading rapidly
- Difficulty catching your breath or shortness of breath when lying flat
- Choking on saliva
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a serious condition that requires immediate hospitalization because it can worsen rapidly. The sooner appropriate treatment is started, the better the chance of a good outcome.