The mysterious history of Guillain Barre Syndrome

As far back as the mid-1800’s scientist were baffled by a strange paralysis that started at the feet–working its way up the body and eventually rendering its victims paralyzed or worse.  The first recorded incident of GBS was documented in 1859 by Jean Baptiste Octave Landry de Thezillat.  Thezillat reported 10 separate occurences of this strange phenomenon that was known as “Landry’s ascending paralysis” until 1876.

After that point, three French physicians–Jean-Alexander Barre, Georges Charles Guillain and Andre Strohl began to examine occurences of the condition during World War I.  After much study, the trio connected the mysterious disease to the peripheral nerves–or those that live in the outer regions of the body.  Even though the three physicians published the first researched work on Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 1916 their contributing team member, Andre Strohl was not acknowledged.  In 1927 the research was re-evaluated by subsequent physicians who gave Guillain Barre its well known name.

Now termed GBS for short, the disease is tragic to say the least.  Most common in middle-age adults the disease does not discriminate–it knows no particluar age, race or sex.  With symptoms that can be disabling or even fatal the disease is now known as an auto-immune disorder.  Auto immune conditions occur when the body turns on itself–attacking tissue, nerves and even organs resulting in multiple types of dysfunctions and failures.

In the case of GBS, the body attacks the peripheral nerves causing tingling and numbness that usually begins in the legs.  Known as “ascending paralysis” the condition works its way up the body. The upper extremities and body systems are usually effected later.  As the nerves are damaged, resulting paralysis renders its victims helpless–unable to move thier muscles and in some cases, hinders the ability to walk, talk or even breathe.

Fortunately, the majority of GBS victims can recover–though not without significant side effects. Sometimes suffering permanent weakness, it may be difficult to ever resume the previous level of function and quality of life.

The exact cause of GBS is largely unknown, but some specific triggers have been identified.  Most cases occur days or weeks after a viral infection–most usually of the lungs or gastrointestinal tract.  In some cases GBS has been shown to occur after certain surgeries or vaccinations.

Currrently there is no clear-cut cure for GBS.  While certain therapies can help shorten the duration of the condition and prevent complications, it must often run its course.  It is estimated that approximately 30% of all GBS victims will still be suffering residual weakness up to three years after the initial onset of symptoms.  An additional 3% may be prone to suffer a relapse many years later as well.


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