A rare disorder known as Guillain-Barré syndrome can occur when the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system and the muscles that are supplied by the affected nerves become weak. This is a serious condition that can occur in anyone at any age and usually, but not always, appears after an infection.
Two French doctors first described the temporary symptoms of an illness that caused weakness and loss of sensation in the early 1900s, and Guillain-Barré syndrome (pronounced Ghee-lan Bar-ray) was named after them. It affects about 1,200 people in the UK each year. The syndrome occurs more often in men than women and can occur at any age from infancy, but older people are slightly more likely to have it, especially between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.
What causes Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Scientists do not know why some people develop Guillain-Barré syndrome and others don’t. It is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system makes antibodies that mistakenly attack healthy tissue instead of an infecting germ. In the case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, it attacks the myelin sheath that surrounds the peripheral nerves - the nerves outside the central nervous system, including those responsible for moving muscles - so the nerves may become inefficient in transmitting signals that alert the brain to the touch sensations such as those of texture, heat and pain, and the muscles become weak. The brain may instead get confused sensations of tingling or pain when there shouldn't be any. The nerves in the arms and legs have the furthest distance to send signals, so these are often affected first.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is not hereditary, so it cannot be passed on to children, and it is not infectious, so you cannot catch it from someone else or give it to another person. However, it does often appear within a few weeks after a throat or intestinal infection such as a cold, sore throat or gastroenteritis. It had been thought that certain vaccinations might be a trigger for Guillain-Barré syndrome but subsequent studies have shown there are no confirmed links.
What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Not everyone experiences the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome in the same way. They can develop quickly within a few hours, and they may be mild with only slight muscle weakness, or they can cause temporary but debilitating paralysis. Some people have no pain, but others experience severe pain in their arms, legs and spine.
At first the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome may be noticed in the feet and hands before spreading to the legs, arms and torso. Sometimes only the lower legs are affected. The symptoms usually affect both sides of the body and become progressively worse over several days or within weeks. Symptoms can include:
- Feeling a tingling sensation, numbness and pain
- Muscle weakness that gets progressively worse
- Unsteadiness and having problems with co-ordination - it may not be possible to walk without someone's help.
- Temporary paralysis of the arms, legs and face
- Blurred vision or double vision
- Difficulty speaking, chewing or swallowing
- Temporary paralysis of the muscles of the respiratory system
- Problems with bladder control and digestion
- Changes in blood pressure and heart rate.
Symptoms such as temporary paralysis, difficulty in breathing or swallowing, or unconsciousness require urgent medical assistance.