Guillain-Barré (gee-yan-buh-ray) Syndrome or GBS, is a rare illness that only affects 1 to 2 people out of 100,000 people every year. GBS is a progressive bilateral (both sides of the body) illness where the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nerve is any nerve outside the central nervous system. There are two types of GBS, which are demyelinating and axonal. These will be covered in the Variant section. In the most common forms of GBS in the United States, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath (the covering of the peripheral nerve), which can cause weakness, tingling, numbness, pain, or even paralysis. Let’s discuss the word syndrome. A syndrome is identifying a specific combination of signs and symptoms that consistently occur together. In other words, a syndrome is the characteristics of a disorder that are used to diagnose it. GBS is not hereditary, nor is it contagious. Most people who have GBS get it after a viral or bacterial illness. Campylobacter jejuni (type of food poisoning from raw or undercooked chicken, unpasteurized milk, or contaminated water) makes up 30% of GBS cases. GBS can sometimes look like other illnesses such as Lyme disease.
GBS is different for every person. Some get a mild case where they recover quickly, and some will get severe cases where their lungs will become paralyzed and need a breathing machine. Every case is different, and every case is special and should be treated that way. GBS usually starts in the feet and moves up towards the head. Recovery is the opposite, it usually starts from the head and moves down to the feet. Recovery can take months to years. At about 4 weeks there is usually a plateau that the patient will hit, and will stay for an unknown amount of time, and one day recovery starts. Recovery is very, very, very slow. Not everyone will fully recover. Around 20% will stay severely disabled, and around 5% will die. Although the outcome may not always be the best, being educated, asking questions, and having a supporting family, friends, and/or advocate can make a huge difference.