Guillain-Barré Syndrome

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare disorder that causes your body's immune system to attack your nerves. Muscle weakness, tingling, and sometimes paralysis result from this attack on the nerves.

Another term for Guillain-Barré syndrome is acute ascending polyneuritis.

How does it occur?

No one knows for sure how Guillain-Barré occurs. Usually it happens after a viral infection, such as a cold or flu. It has also occurred after infection with a type of bacteria called Campylobacter. Infection with Campylobacter may happen after you drink contaminated water or eat inadequately cooked food, especially poultry.

Sometimes Guillain-Barré occurs after surgery or a shot. In some cases there does not seem to be any trigger. All that is known for sure is that something causes the body's immune system to malfunction.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome usually begin in the legs with tingling and weakness. You may have some numbness. The symptoms often move up the body during the next few days or weeks, and the arms and upper body begin to have weakness and tingling. Sometimes the weakness worsens so much that you can't move at all. You may become almost completely paralyzed.

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Tests you may have are:

  • nerve conduction test

  • spinal tap test of fluid from the spinal canal.

How is it treated?

There is no treatment that cures Guillain-Barré syndrome, but there are treatments that sometimes make the symptoms better:

  • Immunoglobulin therapy: You have injections of the proteins that the immune system uses to attack invading organisms.

  • Plasmapheresis: Blood is withdrawn from you and processed so that the red and white blood cells are separated from the plasma, or liquid portion of the blood. The blood cells are then returned to you without the plasma. Your body then quickly makes new plasma.

You will probably need to stay in the hospital so you can be watched closely for possibly life-threatening symptoms. If the muscles that allow you to breathe are affected, you may need a machine to help you breathe until the symptoms improve. The most important thing is to watch you closely and try to prevent complications such as pneumonia and blood clots while you wait for your condition to improve.

You may have physical therapy even before you start to recover to help keep your muscles flexible and strong.

How long will the effects last?

Usually people with Guillain-Barré syndrome recover, but it can take a long time. For most people the weakness gets worse for 2 or 3 weeks and then starts getting better and, after a time, goes away completely. Some people have weakness for months, and a few have it for years. Some never get all of their strength back. Sometimes the syndrome comes back many years after the first attack.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow your health care provider's advice carefully.

  • If you are getting physical therapy, carefully follow the therapist's instructions so your muscles can become strong and flexible again.

  • Consider getting some psychological counseling as you recover. Being paralyzed and dependent on others for help with routine activities can be very difficult emotionally, as well as physically. It is very hard to be able to hear and think, but not able to move or respond. Counseling may help you adapt while you are disabled.

How can I help prevent Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Guillain-Barré isn't contagious. It can't be spread from one person to another. There doesn't seem to be anything in particular that you can do to avoid getting it or having it again.

Where can I get more information about Guillain-Barré?

Guillain-Barré Syndrome Foundation International
PO Box 262
Wynnewood, PA 19096
Phone: 610-667-0131
Web site:

National Institutes of Health Web site for Guillain-Barré Syndrome

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) conducts and supports a wide range of research on neurological disorders, including Guillain-Barré syndrome. For information on neurological disorders or research programs funded by the NINDS, contact the institute's Brain Resources and Information Network (BRAIN) at:
PO Box 5801
Bethesda, Maryland 20824