Guillain-Barré syndrome, sometimes known as GBS, is a rare but serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling. It can eventually result in paralysis. The cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome is unknown. It’s typically triggered by an infectious illness, such as gastroenteritis (irritation of the stomach or intestines) or a lung infection. The nerves in your PNS connect your brain to the rest of your body and transmit signals to your muscles. If the nerves are damaged, your muscles will not be able to respond to the signals they receive from your brain. The first symptom of Guillain-Barré syndrome is usually a tingling sensation in your toes, feet, and legs. The tingling spreads upward to your arms and fingers. The symptoms can progress very rapidly.
Guillain-Barre syndrome often begins with tingling and weakness starting in your feet and legs and spreading to your upper body and arms. In about 10% of people with the disorder, symptoms begin in the arms or face. As Guillain-Barre syndrome progresses, muscle weakness can evolve into paralysis.
Signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome may include:
- Prickling, pins and needles sensations in your fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
- Weakness in your legs that spreads to your upper body
- Unsteady walking or inability to walk or climb stairs
- Difficulty with facial movements, including speaking, chewing or swallowing
- Double vision or inability to move eyes
- Severe pain that may feel achy, shooting or cramplike and may be worse at night
- Difficulty with bladder control or bowel function
- Rapid heart rate
- Low or high blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
Guillain-Barre syndrome affects your nerves. Because nerves control your movements and body functions, people with Guillain-Barre may experience:
- Breathing difficulties. The weakness or paralysis can spread to the muscles that control your breathing, a potentially fatal complication. Up to 22% of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome need temporary help from a machine to breathe within the first week when they’re hospitalized for treatment.
- Residual numbness or other sensations. Most people with Guillain-Barre syndrome recover completely or have only minor, residual weakness, numbness or tingling.
- Heart and blood pressure problems. Blood pressure fluctuations and irregular heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmias) are common side effects of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
- Pain. One-third of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome experience severe nerve pain, which may be eased with medication.
- Bowel and bladder function problems. Sluggish bowel function and urine retention may result from Guillain-Barre syndrome.
- Blood clots. People who are immobile due to Guillain-Barre syndrome are at risk of developing blood clots. Until you’re able to walk independently, taking blood thinners and wearing support stockings may be recommended.
- Pressure sores. Being immobile also puts you at risk of developing bedsores (pressure sores). Frequent repositioning may help avoid this problem.
- Relapse. From 2% to 5% of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome experience a relapse.