Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare condition that affects the peripheral nervous system and is the most common acute paralytic neuropathy worldwide. The peripheral nervous system comprises the nerves that carry signals from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles and take sensory information such as temperature or muscle and joint movement back to the brain.
Most patients present with a flu like illness up to 4 weeks before developing neurological symptoms and several viral or bacterial infections have been associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It is considered an inflammatory demyelinating neuropathy, which means the body’s immune system changes and starts to attack and damage the nerves, reducing their ability to carry signals between the brain and muscles.
Typically, the key presenting symptom in most patients is progressive weakness in both sides of the body, which usually starts in the hands and feet. This can be associated with sensory problems, muscle pain, radicular pain and reduced tendon reflexes.
Patients can experience progression of weakness within a few weeks but the severity and duration of disease is diverse and can range from mild weakness and tingling in the hands and feet to complete paralysis of all muscles.
In the most severe Guillain-Barré cases the breathing, swallowing and facial muscles are also affected leading to the person requiring a ventilator to breathe and a feeding tube for eating.
Once the disease is stabilised the nerves can begin to recover. Therefore Guillain-Barré syndrome treatment involves specialist neurological physiotherapy input to assess and treat the individual as recovery occurs.