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Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)
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Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)

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Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is an inflammatory disorder in which your body's immune system attacks the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord (peripheral nerves) and, rarely, parts of the brain itself. Severe weakness and numbness in your legs and arms characterize GBS. Loss of feeling and movement (paralysis) may occur in your legs, arms, upper body and face.

It can strike any race at any age, but its incidence increases with age. GBS may occur within days or weeks after a viral infection such as influenza (flu) or diarrhea. It may be triggered by pregnancy or a medical procedure, such as a vaccination or minor surgery, or have no evident reason for developing. Because the cause of GBS is unknown, there's no way to prevent the disease from occurring.


Doctors and scientists don't know what causes Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, they believe that GBS is a disorder of the immune system. Research indicates that the immune system may destroy the protective covering of the peripheral nerves (myelin sheath), which disables the nerves from transmitting signals to the muscles. When this happens, muscles become unable to respond to nerve commands. Weakness, numbness or paralysis may occur. The brain also receives fewer sensory signals, resulting in the inability to feel heat, cold, pain and other sensations.

GBS destroys the protective covering of the peripheral nerves (myelin sheath), disabling the nerves from transmitting signals to the muscles. If the myelin sheath doesn't recover, the nerve itself ...

The most recognized conditions that occur before GBS develops are bacterial or viral infections. Approximately two-thirds of people affected by GBS have had a recent infectious illness, such as sore throat, diarrhea, cold or flu, within one to four weeks before the onset of GBS. The Epstein-Barr virus or Hodgkin's disease also may precede GBS.

A bacterial infection such as campylobacteriosis — caused by campylobacter, bacteria commonly found in undercooked food, especially poultry — may be a possible cause of GBS. This form of the disorder is usually more severe because it directly attacks the nerves, instead of the nerve coverings.

GBS is sometimes associated with medical procedures such as minor surgery. Five percent to 10 percent of all cases occur after an operation.

For a brief period, some experts thought a vaccine to be a potential cause of GBS. Initial concern was raised when many cases of GBS were reported after a major flu vaccination program in 1976 and 1977. Further study revealed that the number of cases was no greater than what would've occurred without the vaccination.

Risk factors

GBS affects all races and all ages, but it's most common between the ages of 30 and 50. Contrary to a past theory, people who've recently had a flu shot are not any more at risk of GBS than those who haven't received the immunization.

When to seek medical advice

GBS is a serious disease that requires immediate hospitalization because of the rapid rate at which it worsens. Early treatment is important. The sooner appropriate treatment is started, the better the chance of a good outcome. If treatment can result in reducing the inflammation of your peripheral nerves, the chances of serious permanent damage to the myelin sheath and nerve fibers may be substantially decreased.

If you experience a tingling sensation in your toes, feet or legs followed by muscle weakness, seek medical attention immediately. Failure to see your doctor promptly may lead to progression of the disorder and paralysis, which can leave you incapacitated and unable to get help.

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