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Guillain-Barré Syndrome ˌgē-ˌlan-ˌbä-ˈrā-, ˌgē-yaⁿ-

(Guillain-Barré's Syndrome)

By Michael Rubin, MDCM

Guillain-Barré syndrome (acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy) is a form of polyneuropathy causing muscle weakness, which usually worsens over a few days to weeks, then slowly returns to normal on its own. With treatment, people may improve more quickly.

  • An autoimmune reaction may damage the myelin sheath around nerves.

  • Usually, weakness begins in both legs and moves up the body.

  • Electromyography and nerve conduction studies can help confirm the diagnosis.

  • People with this syndrome are hospitalized immediately because symptoms can worsen rapidly.

  • Immune globulin given intravenously or plasma exchange speeds recovery.

The presumed cause is an autoimmune reaction. The body’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which surrounds the nerve and enables nerve impulses to travel quickly. In about two thirds of people with this syndrome, symptoms begin about 5 days to 3 weeks after a mild infection (such as a Campylobacter infection, mononucleosis, or another viral infection), surgery, or an immunization.

Weakness caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome usually worsens over 3 or 4 weeks, then remains the same or starts to return to normal. If it worsens for more than 8 weeks, it is considered chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), not Guillain-Barré syndrome.