What is Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS, also known as acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the protective myelin sheath that covers the peripheral nerves. There is no cure for GBS. Most people recover completely from this condition in six months to a year, but it can take as long as three years to recover. Some people have lasting impacts from this disorder.
GBS is a very serious condition that can require hospitalization and breathing support. The exact cause of this condition is not known, though it may involve autoimmune disorders that damage peripheral nerves. Guillain-Barré syndrome is typically triggered by an infection. Less common triggers include having surgery or a recent vaccination.
What are the symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
For most people who have GBS, the first symptoms are tingling sensations and weakness that begin in the feet and legs. These symptoms sometimes start in the arms or face. Either way, they can quickly spread to the rest of the body and can eventually lead to paralysis.
Other symptoms of GBS include:
- Pins-and-needles sensations in the fingers, toes, ankles or wrists
- Difficulty walking, including inability to walk or climb stairs
- Loss of facial muscle control, including eye movements, speaking, chewing and swallowing
- Severe aches or cramp-like pains
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Increasingly rapid heart rate
- Abnormally high or low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
People with these symptoms should see a doctor right away, since this disorder can spread rapidly. Symptoms usually peak within two to four weeks after they begin.
How is Guillain-Barré syndrome diagnosed?
GBS can be difficult to diagnose. The symptoms are similar to other disorders, such as botulism, meningitis and poisoning from heavy metals such as lead, mercury or arsenic.
People with symptoms of GBS should describe them in detail to the doctor, and also let the doctor know about any recent infections or other illnesses. Doctors may use the following tests to diagnose GBS:
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). This test withdraws a small amount of spinal fluid that is tested for abnormally high levels of protein.
- Electromyography (EMG). With this test, the doctor inserts very thin needles (electrodes) into specific muscles to assess if weakness is caused by nerve damage.
- Nerve conduction tests. This is similar to the EMG tests, with the electrodes taped to the skin instead of inserted as needles.
How is Guillain-Barré syndrome treated?
The main concern with GBS is that for some people it can quickly lead to full-body paralysis. If this affects the diaphragm or chest muscles, it can impact breathing and may be life-threatening. For this reason, treatment is focused on reducing the severity of the immune system attack and supporting breathing and other core body functions.
While there is no cure for GBS there are two treatments that can help reduce the severity of the illness and possibly speed recovery. These are:
- Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG). The antibodies in immunoglobulin from healthy blood donors can block the damaging antibodies that may contribute to GBS.
- Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis). This procedure uses a machine to remove the antibodies that are attacking the nerves from the blood. The blood is then returned to the body.
In addition to these treatments, doctors may prescribe medications for pain and to prevent blood clots, which can develop in people who are immobile.
People who are recovering from GBS may also need physical therapy to help regain strength and proper movement. Wheelchairs and braces can also assist during recovery.
Most people who develop GBS fully recover, although some do not. Children rarely get GBS, and if they do, they usually recover more quickly and more completely than adults.
Can vaccines cause Guillain-Barré syndrome?
In rare cases, people develop GBS as a result of receiving a vaccination. The flu (influenza) vaccine is more closely associated with GBS than other vaccines. However, people may also get this disorder from other common vaccines, such as those for:
- Hepatitis A or hepatitis B
- Human papillomavirus, or HPV
- Tetanus, Tdap or DTaP
- Meningococcal disorders
Guillain-Barré syndrome is covered under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). People who develop GBS from a vaccine typically begin to see symptoms within three to 40 days. They may qualify for compensation for this vaccine injury.
Have you been injured?
If you think you or a loved one has Guillain-Barré syndrome due to a vaccine, seek medical help right away. Then, contact us to review your case. One of our experienced vaccine injury attorneys will help you understand your condition and what to do next.