What Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre Syndrome diagram

Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is a rare and often misunderstood neurological disorder that can have a profound impact on those affected. It is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system — the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord — resulting in progressive weakness throughout the body. This can lead to inflammation and damage to the nerve’s protective covering, known as myelin. The resulting nerve damage disrupts the normal communication between the nerves and muscles. These symptoms can quickly spread, eventually paralysing your whole body. In its most severe form, Guillain-Barré syndrome is a medical emergency.

Guillain-Barré syndrome can affect anybody. It can strike at any age, but according to the World Health Organisation, it is more common in adult males. The syndrome is rare, however, afflicting only about one person in 100,000. Usually, Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs a few days or weeks after respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection symptoms. Occasionally, surgery will trigger the syndrome. Recently, some countries have reported an increased incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome following infection with the Zika virus. In rare instances, vaccinations may increase the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain barre syndrome treatment diagram

Guillain-Barré syndrome usually begins with a sensation of tingling and weakness in the feet and legs, eventually extending to the upper body and arms. Other signs may be difficulty with balance and coordination and, in severe cases, difficulty breathing. As the syndrome advances, this muscle weakness may intensify, potentially leading to paralysis. The progression of Guillain-Barré symptoms varies, unfolding over hours, days, or weeks.

Typically, individuals experience their most profound weakness within the initial two weeks after the onset of symptoms. By the third week of the illness, approximately 90% of patients have reached their weakest point. This timeline offers a general understanding of the evolving nature of Guillain-Barré syndrome, highlighting the importance of prompt medical attention and intervention during its early stages.

How is Guillain-Barré Syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosing GBS can be challenging due to its variable and often unpredictable presentation. A combination of clinical examination, medical history, and diagnostic tests such as nerve conduction studies and lumbar puncture are typically used to confirm the diagnosis. It is crucial for healthcare professionals to act promptly, as early intervention can significantly improve outcomes.

Several disorders have symptoms similar to those found in Guillain-Barré syndrome, so doctors examine and question patients carefully before making a diagnosis. For Guillain-Barré syndrome, physicians observe if the symptoms appear on both sides of the body and the quickness with which the symptoms appear. In Guillain-Barré, reflexes such as knee jerks are often lost. Because the signals travelling along the nerve cells are slower, a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test can give clues to aid the diagnosis.

In Guillain-Barré patients, the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the spinal cord and brain contains more protein than usual. Therefore, a physician may perform a spinal tap, a procedure in which a needle is inserted into the patient’s lower back, and a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal column is withdrawn for study.

Treatment for Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Women with no feeling in knee Guillian-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a neurological disorder that demands a multi-faceted approach to treatment, as there is currently no cure for this complex condition. The goal of GBS treatment is to manage symptoms effectively and foster a patient’s recovery. Here are key components of the treatment arsenal:

Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis)

  • How it works: Plasma exchange is a therapeutic procedure that involves removing and separating a patient’s blood plasma from the blood cells. The separated plasma is then replaced with a substitute, typically albumin or a plasma substitute.
  • Rationale: The process aims to eliminate harmful antibodies attacking the peripheral nerves, reducing the overall autoimmune response. By clearing the blood of these antibodies, plasma exchange helps interrupt the progression of Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Immunoglobulin therapy

  • How it works: Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) involves infusing high doses of healthy antibodies obtained from blood donors into the patient’s bloodstream. These antibodies act to modulate the immune system, suppressing the autoimmune attack on the peripheral nerves.
  • Rationale: By introducing a concentrated dose of functional antibodies, IVIG helps regulate the immune response, mitigating the severity of Guillain-Barré Syndrome symptoms and potentially speeding up the recovery process.

Medication to relieve pain and prevent blood clots

  • Pain management: GBS can cause significant pain and discomfort, and medicines such as analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to alleviate these symptoms.
  • Blood clot prevention: As immobility is common in severe cases of GBS, there is a risk of blood clots. Anticoagulant medications may be administered to prevent clot formation and reduce the risk of complications.

Physical therapy

  • Role in recovery: Physical therapy is a cornerstone of GBS rehabilitation. Therapists work with patients to maintain and improve muscle strength, enhance flexibility, and restore mobility. Exercises are tailored to the individual’s capabilities, focusing on regaining control over affected muscles.
  • Preventing complications: Physical therapy not only aids in the recovery of motor functions but also helps prevent complications such as joint contractures and muscle atrophy that can arise from prolonged immobility.

Recognising that each individual’s experience with Guillain-Barré Syndrome is unique is crucial. Treatment plans are tailored to address specific symptoms and the patient’s overall health. Moreover, the multidisciplinary nature of care, involving neurologists, physiatrists, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals, ensures a comprehensive and individualised approach to managing GBS.

The prognosis for Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome can be a devastating disorder because of its sudden and unexpected onset. In addition, recovery is not necessarily quick. Patients usually reach the point of greatest weakness or paralysis days or weeks after the first symptoms occur. Symptoms then stabilise at this level for days, weeks, or months. The recovery period may be as little as a few weeks or as long as a few years. About 30% of those with Guillain-Barré syndrome still have a residual weakness after three years. About 3% may suffer a relapse of muscle weakness and tingling sensations many years after the initial attack. Physical therapy plays a crucial role in regaining strength and improving mobility. Occupational therapy can help individuals adapt to daily activities, while speech therapy may be necessary if facial muscles are affected. Support from healthcare professionals, family, and friends is vital during this challenging period.

Mobility assistance for those with Guillain-Barré Syndrome

People with GBS may experience varying degrees of muscle weakness and paralysis, affecting their mobility. As they work towards recovery, individuals with GBS may utilise a range of mobility aids to enhance stability, prevent falls, and promote independence. The choice of mobility aids often depends on the severity of symptoms and the person’s specific needs. Many individuals facing the long-term effects of Guillain-Barré syndrome find enhanced mobility and independence through power wheelchairs. Quantum Rehab, a global leader in tailored power wheelchair solutions, places a strong emphasis on developing technologies specifically catered to the unique needs of Guillain-Barré syndrome patients.

Quantum powerchairs

Quantum Q6 Edge 2 Powerchair

Quantum Q6 Edge

Quantum powerchairs are equipped with cutting-edge features designed to provide both comfort and adaptability. These include power-adjustable seating for personalised repositioning, specialised drive controls allowing users to operate the powerchair with a single finger or even using their head, and a highly flexible design that caters to current and future needs.

Incorporating advanced technologies is a hallmark of Quantum powerchairs, aiming to enhance the independence of individuals living with Guillain-Barré syndrome. For instance, the iLevel seat elevation technology allows users to seamlessly transition between seated and standing positions, offering a new level of flexibility. Bluetooth integration into Quantum’s Q-Logic 3 electronics enables those with Guillain-Barré syndrome to control various aspects of their environment through the powerchair’s drive control.

Quantum Rehab’s power bases encompass a diverse range of models, each thoughtfully crafted to cater to the varied and intricate needs of individuals seeking comprehensive rehabilitation solutions. At the forefront of innovation, the Quantum Edge 3 stands out by offering an industry-first 4.5 mph at iLevel, delivering an unparalleled powerchair experience. This cutting-edge model is designed to meet the most advanced mobility requirements.

The Quantum Q6 powerchair series, encompassing the Edge 3 and Q6 Edge 2 powerchairs, is characterised by highly adjustable mid-wheel drive power bases. These models are tailored to provide maximum adaptability to the unique needs of users. For those seeking added functionality, the Q6 Edge 2 is compatible with optional iLevel technology, providing an impressive 12 inches of lift at 4.5 mph. This feature adds a new dimension to the powerchair experience, allowing users greater flexibility and control. And, introducing the Quantum 4Front, a front-wheel drive powerchair that sets a new standard in quiet, responsive operation. Boasting automotive-grade suspension, this model offers unprecedented comfort and ride quality, ensuring a smoother and more enjoyable mobility experience.

Contact us to book a FREE powerchair assessment.

The importance of looking after your mental health

Living with Guillain-Barré syndrome can be emotionally taxing. The uncertainty of the recovery process, combined with physical challenges, can lead to anxiety and depression. Mental health support is an integral component of the overall care for individuals with GBS, encompassing counselling, support groups, and resources for patients and their caregivers.

Hope for the future

While Guillain-Barré Syndrome can be a severe and life-altering condition, many individuals do recover with time and proper medical care. Each person’s road to recovery differs, and some may experience lingering effects. Nonetheless, advancements in medical research and treatment options offer hope for improved outcomes and a better understanding of this complex disorder.

Related Reading: What Is Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

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