If you’re experiencing trouble swallowing, vision problems, prickling or needle sensations, pain, or coordination issues, you may be suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). While this is a relatively rare disorder in the United States, it is estimated to affect thousands of people in the country every year.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at Guillain-Barré Syndrome and its symptoms, causes, prognoses, and other related topics.
What is GBS?
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a neurological disorder that impacts the peripheral nervous system of the human body. The disorder arises when the body’s immune system begins attacking parts of the nervous system. While the immune system’s attack on the nervous system is the result of a mistake, it can have a negative impact on the health of those who suffer from the disorder.
Side effects can vary from slight weakness to almost complete paralysis. While the side effects can be extremely severe, most of them will dissipate with time. The majority of Guillain-Barré Syndrome sufferers recover from the disorder, though many experience some form of weakness after their initial recovery.
While the immune system’s normal function is to protect your body against disease and infection, in the case of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, it does the opposite. For this reason, Guillain-Barré Syndrome has been labeled an autoimmune disease by health professionals.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome can develop in individuals of any age. While it is more likely to form in adults, it’s important to note that children are not safe from the disorder.
In rare cases, individuals die from Guillain-Barré Syndrome. For this reason, it’s critical to seek immediate medical attention if you believe you have the disorder.
Symptoms of GBS
The signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome vary depending on the individual patient. It will require the expertise of a medical professional to provide a formal diagnosis of the disorder. Still, a few key indicators can show that you may be suffering from this disorder.
One of the first signs experienced by Guillain-Barré Syndrome patients is strange sensations in their hands, feet, legs, or back. This may present itself in the form of a tingling sensation or pain in these areas.
Weakness is also a major indicator of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. This may impact your ability to walk or perform general functions. Unlike other similar disorders, Guillain-Barré Syndrome will likely cause weakness on both sides of your body at the same time.
These symptoms can present themselves exceptionally quickly. Most people who develop this disorder will reach full weakness by the second week of experiencing symptoms. This rapid decline in function can be shocking for those who experience it and is one of the primary reasons that you should seek medical attention immediately if you believe you have Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
Below is a full list of potential signs and symptoms of GBS:
• Tingling, prickling, or painful sensations developing in the feet or hands
• Severe pain, which may increase during the night
• Vision problems
• Eye muscle problems
• Difficulty swallowing
• Difficulty speaking
• Difficulty chewing
• Poor coordination
• Abnormal heartbeat
• Abnormal blood pressure
• Bladder control issues
• Digestion issues
It’s important to note that while the above symptoms and signs point towards Guillain-Barré Syndrome, there are a host of other disorders and diseases that can present similar side effects. This is especially true if you’re only experiencing one of the symptoms. For this reason, it’s always important to speak to a doctor if you’re concerned about GBS.
What Causes GBS?
The underlying cause of Guillain-Barré Syndrome is still not completely understood. While it’s clear that the immune system is attacking the peripheral nervous system, it’s unclear what causes the problem. Fortunately, the disease is not contagious, which means you won’t need to worry about coming into contact with a family member or loved one who suffers from GBS.
Researchers believe that infections can cause initial problems that develop into GBS. As the immune system battles an infection, it may eventually confuse chemicals on nerve cells with chemicals on viruses and bacteria. Thus, after the infection is no longer an issue, the body continues to attack the body’s peripheral nervous system.
Below are some common triggers associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome:
• Campylobacter bacteria
• Zika virus
• Hepatitis A, B, C, and E
• Epstein-Barr Virus
• Flu vaccines
• Hodgkin’s lymphoma
There has been some association with the flu vaccine and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. While this is extremely rare, some instances indicate people who receive the flu vaccine have an increased chance of developing GBS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors this risk and notes that the risk varies from season to season.
In 1976, evidence helped show that the swine flu vaccine was associated with increased levels of GBS. While the exact reason behind the linkage is not fully understood, the current risks are lower. Also, because GBS is linked to infections, it is thought that contracting the flu puts you at risk of developing GBS more than receiving the vaccine.
How is it Diagnosed?
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is hard to diagnose because its symptoms can also point to various other nerve-related conditions. This means that doctors without expertise in the field may find it hard to provide an immediate diagnosis. Still, a few key items can sometimes differentiate Guillain-Barré Syndrome from other related disorders.
One of the primary factors that doctors assess to diagnose Guillain-Barré Syndrome is the onset period of the disease. In most cases, those suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome will experience its initial effects over a short period. This speed is alarming because the disorder can become serious in a matter of days or weeks.
On the other hand, other disorders can take months to develop muscle weakness and paralysis symptoms. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is also known for occurring on both sides of the body, whereas other similar disorders can often occur in stages across different sides of the body.
Lastly, doctors will sometimes perform a spinal tap to assess the spinal fluid in an individual that is suffering from symptoms.
How is GBS Treated?
There is no immediate “cure” for Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Those who suffer from the condition typically require admission to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to mitigate initial problems and complications. In the case of respiratory failure, immediate medical attention is necessary.
Pneumonia and other complications can arise from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, so patients must be monitored while the acute symptoms of the disorder are present.
To interrupt the immune system from damaging the nerves in the patient’s body, doctors will often use plasma exchange or high-dose immunoglobulin therapy to mitigate the impact. Again, while this does not provide a surefire cure, it can help reduce the severity of complications.
Once acute treatment is complete, and the patient is making a recovery from the initial effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, rehabilitation will begin. The purpose of this rehabilitation is to help patients rebuild strength and motor functions.
GBS Statistics – How Common is It?
GBS is a relatively rare neurological disorder. Health experts have determined that it impacts around 1 in 100,000 people in the United States. Each year, between 3,000 and 6,000 patients are diagnosed with the disorder throughout the country, according to the CDC.
Evidence suggests that Guillain-Barré Syndrome is more common in individuals that receive certain seasonal flu vaccines. While this can vary depending on the year, the CDC tracks this information.
There are other variations of Guillain-Barré Syndrome that present themselves as nerve disorders.
Two of the most common disorders include:
Acute Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (AIDP)
With AIDP, the immune system typically attacks the myelin coating, which damages nerve signal transmission. This can also result in respiratory failure for around 20% of patients.
Acute Motor Axonal Neuropathy (AMAN)
AMAN is another motor disorder characterized by respiratory failure and muscle weakness. As with traditional Guillain-Barré Syndrome, AMAN patients typically experience weakness on both sides of the body.
Due to the acute nerve damage caused by Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a range of complications may arise for those who develop the disorder.
You can review some common complications below:
• Issues with the patient’s heart and blood pressure
• Issues with breathing, which can prove fatal in rare cases
• Residual tingling, numbness, and other sensations
• Blood clots
• Bedsores can develop for those who spend significant time admitted to hospital
• Recurrence of symptoms can occur in rare instances
• Nerve pain can continue to develop for some Guillain-Barré Syndrome sufferers
The CDC is a federal agency tasked with providing public health solutions for the American public. The agency offers in-depth information on various diseases, disorders, and other health issues. As mentioned previously, the CDC estimates that between 3,000 and 6,000 individuals develop GBS in the United States every year.
The CDC also states there is evidence of the flu vaccine causing increases in GBS rates. In 1976, a year where it was particularly prevalent, there was an increase of 1 in 100,000 people for those who received a swine flu jab. The CDC continues to monitor this connection.
What is the Long-Term Outlook?
If you’re diagnosed with GBS, you’re likely concerned about the long-term outlook of the condition. While GBS can be deadly for a small number of patients, the majority of individuals will make a significant recovery. Numerous studies have been conducted on GBS, many of which point to positive prognoses for patients.
In most cases, patients will regain normal function within a few years. While some individuals experience long-term issues with weakness after the initial recovery, this isn’t prevalent. In rare cases, individuals may experience a recurrence of symptoms years after the disorder presented itself.
Fortunately, significant research into Guillain-Barré Syndrome is ongoing. Medical researchers hope there will be substantial developments that increase our understanding of this unique syndrome and its impact on the body.
We receive many questions about GBS and related topics. Below, let’s explore some common questions and answers about this unique condition:
Do outbreaks of GBS occur?
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is not contagious, so outbreaks do not occur in the traditional sense of the word. Still, because GBS is linked to some seasonal flu shots, so there may be an increase in GBS resulting from certain flu seasons.
Who is at risk?
Everyone is at risk of developing GBS, but it is more likely to form in adults than in children. If you develop an infection that confuses your immune system and causes it to attack your peripheral nervous system, you will be at risk of developing GBS complications. Additionally, if you receive a flu shot, you may be at more risk of developing GBS.
What type of respiratory failure is caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is known for weakening the inspiratory and expiratory muscles in the human body. Guillain-Barré Syndrome can cause Type II respiratory failure. This type of respiratory failure can result from muscle weakness that is associated with GBS.
What causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
While the exact cause of Guillain-Barré Syndrome is relatively unknown, many scientists believe it can develop after an initial infection causes an adverse reaction from the immune system. By confusing the peripheral nervous system with an infection, the immune system may be attacking your nervous system in a flawed attempt to protect your body.
There is also evidence linking certain flu vaccines with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. While the increase in individuals suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome after receiving a flu vaccine is small, it is still relevant enough to be included in a significant amount of scientific research. The CDC tracks cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome each year when flu vaccines are administered.
How to diagnose Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
To diagnose Guillain-Barré Syndrome, it’s essential to visit a doctor that specializes in nerve-related issues. This is not a condition that you can diagnose on your own – you will likely require immediate medical attention.
Your doctor will assess your symptoms, perform tests, and potentially perform a spinal tap to examine your spinal fluids. Due to GBS’s symptoms being like many other nerve conditions, it’s essential to remember that it can be difficult to diagnose.
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