What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

It may sound like it could be a workout class, but it’s actually a serious neurological disorder.

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This is not meant to scare you, but have you heard of a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome? It isn’t contagious or genetic, and the causes are still widely unknown.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the nerves by mistake. Normally, the immune system is supposed to attack foreign invaders in the body (like viruses) to keep you healthy. By attacking your own nerves, the immune system can cause inflammation or affect the function of your nerves. This can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis. In some cases, it can even be fatal.

Symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome

Some of the first signs can be tingling and weakness in the legs. Then, many experience loss of reflexes in the knees, and sometimes the arms and torso. It also causes muscle weakness, skin-crawling sensations, and temporary or long-term paralysis. These symptoms may become more intense over hours to weeks, with paralysis occurring a couple weeks after the initial symptoms.

In some cases, people may also experience respiratory issues, heart problems, digestive issues, bladder problems, and difficulty eating and swallowing. When heart and lung problems are severe, Guillain-Barré syndrome can become a life-threatening concern.

How do you get it?

The jury is still out about what actually causes Guillain-Barré syndrome. However, it tends to develop after having certain:

  1. Viral illnesses like flu, Zika, and Epstein-Barr
  2. Bacterial infections (40% of cases in the U.S. are linked to Campylobacter) from consuming uncooked meats or untreated water
  3. Procedures like surgeries or the flu shot

Only about 1 in 100,000 people gets Guillain-Barré syndrome in the U.S., according to the CDC. That amounts to about 3,000 to 6,000 cases a year. Although anyone can come down with Guillain-Barré syndrome, it’s more common in men over 50.

Is it curable?

There’s good news: A majority of patients make full recovery within a few years. Only about 15 percent of people with Guillain-Barré syndrome experience long-term weakness that may require the use of a wheelchair or other assistive devices, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Treatments include plasma exchange therapy, antibody infusions, and intensive rehab. These can help shorten recovery time and reduce the severity of symptoms. Rehab can help patients regain their muscle strength and ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Pay attention to how your limbs are feeling, and see a doctor right away if you begin to lose any function of your legs with muscle weakness, tingling, and/or pain.