Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rapid-onset muscle weakness caused by the immune system damaging the peripheral nervous system. The initial symptoms are typically changes in sensation or pain along with muscle weakness, beginning in the feet and hands. This often spreads to the arms and upper body, with both sides being involved. The symptoms develop over hours to a few weeks. During the acute phase, the disorder can be life-threatening, with about 15% developing weakness of the breathing muscles requiring mechanical ventilation. Some are affected by changes in the function of the autonomic nervous system, which can lead to dangerous abnormalities in heart rate and blood pressure.
The cause is unknown. The underlying mechanism involves an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nerves and damages their myelin insulation. Sometimes this immune dysfunction is triggered by an infection or, less commonly by surgery and rarely by vaccination. The diagnosis is usually made based on the signs and symptoms, through the exclusion of alternative causes, and supported by tests such as nerve conduction studies and examination of the cerebrospinal fluid. There are a number of subtypes based on the areas of weakness, results of nerve conduction studies and the presence of certain antibodies. It is classified as an acute polyneuropathy.
Signs and symptoms
The first symptoms of Guillain–Barré syndrome are numbness, tingling, and pain, alone or in combination. This is followed by weakness of the legs and arms that affects both sides equally and worsens over time. The weakness can take half a day to over two weeks to reach maximum severity, and then becomes steady. In one in five people, the weakness continues to progress for as long as four weeks. The muscles of the neck may also be affected, and about half experience involvement of the cranial nerves which supply the head and face; this may lead to weakness of the muscles of the face, swallowing difficulties and sometimes weakness of the eye muscles. In 8%, the weakness affects only the legs (paraplegia or paraparesis). Involvement of the muscles that control the bladder and anus is unusual. In total, about a third of people with Guillain–Barré syndrome continue to be able to walk. Once the weakness has stopped progressing, it persists at a stable level (“plateau phase”) before improvement occurs. The plateau phase can take between two days and six months, but the most common duration is a week. Pain-related symptoms affect more than half, and include back pain, painful tingling, muscle pain and pain in the head and neck relating to irritation of the lining of the brain.
Many people with Guillain–Barré syndrome have experienced the signs and symptoms of an infection in the 3–6 weeks prior to the onset of the neurological symptoms. This may consist of upper respiratory tract infection (rhinitis, sore throat) or diarrhea.
In children, particularly those younger than six years old, the diagnosis can be difficult and the condition is often initially mistaken (sometimes for up to two weeks) for other causes of pains and difficulty walking, such as viral infections, or bone and joint problems.
On neurological examination, characteristic features are the reduced strength of muscles and reduced or absent tendon reflexes (hypo- or areflexia, respectively). However, a small proportion have normal reflexes in affected limbs before developing areflexia, and some may have exaggerated reflexes. In the Miller Fisher variant of Guillain–Barré syndrome (see below), a triad of weakness of the eye muscles, abnormalities in coordination, as well as absent reflexes can be found. The level of consciousness is normally unaffected in Guillain–Barré syndrome, but the Bickerstaff brainstem encephalitis subtype may feature drowsiness, sleepiness, or coma.
Two thirds of people with Guillain–Barré syndrome have experienced an infection before the onset of the condition. Most commonly these are episodes of gastroenteritis or a respiratory tract infection. In many cases, the exact nature of the infection can be confirmed. Approximately 30% of cases are provoked by Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, which cause diarrhea. A further 10% are attributable to cytomegalovirus (CMV, HHV-5). Despite this, only very few people with Campylobacter or CMV infections develop Guillain–Barré syndrome (0.25–0.65 per 1000 and 0.6–2.2 per 1000 episodes, respectively). The strain of Campylobacter involved may determine the risk of GBS; different forms of the bacteria have different lipopolysaccharides on their surface, and some may induce illness (see below) while others will not.
Links between other infections and GBS are less certain. Two other herpesviruses (Epstein–Barr virus/HHV-4 and varicella zoster virus/HHV-3) and the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae have been associated with GBS.
The tropical viral infection dengue fever and Zika virus have also been associated with episodes of GBS. Previous hepatitis E virus infection has been found to be more common in people with Guillain–Barré syndrome.
Some cases may be triggered by the influenza virus and potentially influenza vaccine. An increased incidence of Guillain–Barré syndrome followed influenza immunization that followed the 1976 swine flu outbreak (H1N1 A/NJ/76); 8.8 cases per million recipients developed the complication. Since then, close monitoring of cases attributable to vaccination has demonstrated that influenza itself can induce GBS. Small increases in incidence have been observed in subsequent vaccination campaigns, but not to the same extent. The 2009 flu pandemic vaccine (against pandemic swine flu virus H1N1/PDM09) did not cause a significant increase in cases. It is considered that the benefits of vaccination in preventing influenza outweigh the small risks of GBS after vaccination. Even those who have previously experienced Guillain–Barré syndrome are considered safe to receive the vaccine in the future. Other vaccines, such as those against poliomyelitis, tetanus or measles, have not been associated with a risk of GBS.
The diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome depends on findings such as rapid development of muscle paralysis, absent reflexes, absence of fever, and a likely cause. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis (through a lumbar spinal puncture) and nerve conduction studies are supportive investigations commonly performed in the diagnosis of GBS. Testing for antiganglioside antibodies is often performed, but their contribution to diagnosis is usually limited. Blood tests are generally performed to exclude the possibility of another cause for weakness, such as a low level of potassium in the blood. An abnormally low level of sodium in the blood is often encountered in Guillain–Barré syndrome. This has been attributed to the inappropriate secretion of antidiuretic hormone, leading to relative retention of water.
In many cases, magnetic resonance imaging of the spinal cord is performed to distinguish between Guillain–Barré syndrome and other conditions causing limb weakness, such as spinal cord compression. If an MRI scan shows enhancement of the nerve roots, this may be indicative of GBS. In children, this feature is present in 95% of scans, but it is not specific to Guillain–Barré syndrome, so other confirmation is also needed.
Cerebrospinal fluid envelops the brain and the spine, and lumbar puncture or spinal tap is the removal of a small amount of fluid using a needle inserted between the lumbar vertebrae. Characteristic findings in Guillain–Barré syndrome are an elevated protein level, usually greater than 0.55 g/L, and fewer than 10 white blood cells per cubic millimeter of fluid (“albuminocytological dissociation”). This pattern distinguishes Guillain–Barré syndrome from other conditions (such as lymphoma and poliomyelitis) in which both the protein and the cell count are elevated. Elevated CSF protein levels are found in approximately 50% of patients in the first 3 days after onset of weakness, which increases to 80% after the first week.
Repeating the lumbar puncture during the disease course is not recommended. The protein levels may rise after treatment has been administered.
Directly assessing nerve conduction of electrical impulses can exclude other causes of acute muscle weakness, as well as distinguish the different types of Guillain–Barré syndrome. Needle electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies may be performed. In the first two weeks, these investigations may not show any abnormality. Neurophysiology studies are not required for the diagnosis.
Formal criteria exist for each of the main subtypes of Guillain–Barré syndrome (AIDP and AMAN/AMSAN, see below), but these may misclassify some cases (particularly where there is reversible conduction failure) and therefore changes to these criteria have been proposed. Sometimes, repeated testing may be helpful.
A number of subtypes of Guillain–Barré syndrome are recognized. Despite this, many people have overlapping symptoms that can make the classification difficult in individual cases. All types have partial forms. For instance, some people experience only isolated eye-movement or coordination problems; these are thought to be a subtype of Miller Fisher syndrome and have similar antiganglioside antibody patterns.
Plasmapheresis and intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG) are the two main immunotherapy treatments for GBS. Plasmapheresis attempts to reduce the body’s attack on the nervous system by filtering antibodies out of the bloodstream. Similarly, administration of IVIG neutralizes harmful antibodies and inflammation. These two treatments are equally effective, but a combination of the two is not significantly better than either alone. Plasmapheresis speeds recovery when used within four weeks of the onset of symptoms. IVIG works as well as plasmapheresis when started within two weeks of the onset of symptoms, and has fewer complications. IVIG is usually used first because of its ease of administration and safety. Its use is not without risk; occasionally it causes liver inflammation, or in rare cases, kidney failure. Glucocorticoids alone have not been found to be effective in speeding recovery and could potentially delay recovery.
Respiratory failure may require intubation of the trachea and breathing support through mechanical ventilation, generally on an intensive care unit. The need for ventilatory support can be anticipated by measurement of two spirometry-based breathing tests: the forced vital capacity (FVC) and the negative inspiratory force (NIF). An FVC of less than 15 ml per kilogram body weight or an NIF of less than 60 cmH2O are considered markers of severe respiratory failure.
While pain is common in people with Guillain–Barré syndrome, studies comparing different types of pain medication are insufficient to make a recommendation as to which should be used.
Following the acute phase, around 40% of people require intensive rehabilitation with the help of a multidisciplinary team to focus on improving activities of daily living (ADLs). Studies into the subject have been limited, but it is likely that intensive rehabilitation improves long-term symptoms. Teams may include physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, social workers, psychologists, other allied health professionals and nurses. The team usually works under the supervision of a neurologist or rehabilitation physician directing treatment goals.
Physiotherapy interventions include strength, endurance and gait training with graduated increases in mobility, maintenance of posture and alignment as well as joint function. Occupational therapy aims to improve everyday function with domestic and community tasks as well as driving and work. Home modifications, gait aids, orthotics and splints may be provided. Speech-language pathology input may be required in those with speech and swallowing problems, as well as to support communication in those who require ongoing breathing support (often through a tracheostomy). Nutritional support may be provided by the team and by dietitians. Psychologists may provide counseling and support. Psychological interventions may also be required for anxiety, fear and depression.
Guillain–Barré syndrome can lead to death as a result of a number of complications: severe infections, blood clots, and cardiac arrest likely due to autonomic neuropathy. Despite optimum care, this occurs in about 5% of cases.
There is a variation in the rate and extent of recovery. The prognosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome is determined mainly by age (those over 40 may have a poorer outcome), and by the severity of symptoms after two weeks. Furthermore, those who experienced diarrhea before the onset of disease have a worse prognosis. On the nerve conduction study, the presence of conduction block predicts poorer outcome at 6 months. In those who have received intravenous immunoglobulins, a smaller increase in IgG in the blood two weeks after administration is associated with poorer mobility outcomes at six months than those whose IgG level increased substantially. If the disease continues to progress beyond four weeks, or there are multiple fluctuations in the severity (more than two in eight weeks), the diagnosis may be chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, which is treated differently.
In research studies, the outcome from an episode of Guillain–Barré syndrome is recorded on a scale from 0 to 6, where 0 denotes completely healthy; 1 very minor symptoms but able to run; 2 able to walk but not to run; 3 requiring a stick or other support; 4 confined to bed or chair; 5 requiring long-term respiratory support; 6 death.
The health-related quality of life (HRQL) after an attack of Guillain–Barré syndrome can be significantly impaired. About a fifth are unable to walk unaided after six months, and many experience chronic pain, fatigue and difficulty with work, education, hobbies and social activities. HRQL improves significantly in the first year.
In Western countries, the number of new episodes per year has been estimated to be between 0.89 and 1.89 cases per 100,000 people. Children and young adults are less likely to be affected than the elderly: the risk increases by 20% for every decade of life. Men are more likely to develop Guillain–Barré syndrome than women; the relative risk for men is 1.78 compared to women.
The distribution of subtypes varies between countries. In Europe and the United States, 60–80% of people with Guillain–Barré syndrome have the demyelinating subtype (AIDP), and AMAN affects only a small number (6–7%). In Asia and Central and South America, that proportion is significantly higher (30–65%). This may be related to the exposure to different kinds of infection, but also the genetic characteristics of that population. Miller Fisher variant is thought to be more common in Southeast Asia.