What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a neurological disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The onset can be quite sudden and unexpected. The disorder can develop over a few days, or it may take up to several weeks. A person experiences the greatest weakness within the first two weeks after symptoms appear.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is named after Georges Charles Guillain and Jean-Alexandre Barré. Guillain and Barré were two Frenchmen who were trained as neurologists at the famous Saltpêtrière hospital in Paris about a hundred years ago.
Peripheral nerves originate in the spinal cord and proceed to their target tissues (mainly muscle, skin and all internal organs). Their most proximal parts emerging from the spinal cord are called nerve roots and the inflammation in most (but not all) typical Guillain-Barré syndrome cases starts in these roots. Therefore, this condition is also referred to as acute polyradiculoneuritis. The myelin sheath speeds up the transmission of nerve signals, and if defective, the nerves cannot transmit signals efficiently. It produces rapidly worsening muscle weakness, sometimes leading to paralysis. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, sometimes spreading to the upper limbs. The weakness is most severe within 2 to 3 weeks in 90% of the affected patients. GBS can become life-threatening if the respiratory muscles are affected. In 5 to 10%, the muscles that support breathing become so weak that a respirator is needed. About 10% need to be fed intravenously or through a gastrostomy tube because the facial and swallowing muscles become weak. If the disease is very severe, the patient may have a fluctuating blood pressure or abnormal heart rhythm.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheath, which wraps around long nerve cell bodies much like insulation around a water pipe. Myelin protects the nerve and helps to speed the transmission of electrical impulses down the nerve. If the myelin is destroyed, nerve impulses travel very slowly and can become disrupted. If muscles don't get proper stimulation through the nerves, they will not function properly. Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradicalneuropathy (CIDP), is considered to be a related form of Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is much less common than GBS, and evolves much more slowly and usually is longer lasting. Some CIDP patients experience periods of worsening and improvement, and individual relapses are often confused with GBS.