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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an uncommon disorder that causes damage to the peripheral nerves. These nerves send messages from the brain to the muscles, instructing the muscles to move. They also carry sensations such as pain from the body to the brain. The nerve damage often causes muscle weakness, often to the point of paralysis, and can cause problems with sensation, including pain, tingling, "crawling skin" or a certain amount of numbness.

Guillain-Barré syndrome can become a medical emergency if the weakness affects the chest muscles responsible for breathing. If chest muscles become paralyzed, the patient can die from lack of oxygen. People with this syndrome must be carefully monitored, usually in a hospital, to make sure that breathing and other vital functions are maintained.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheath, which wraps around long nerve cell bodies much like insulation around a water pipe. Myelin protects the nerve and helps to speed the transmission of electrical impulses down the nerve. If the myelin is destroyed, nerve impulses travel very slowly and can become disrupted. If muscles don't get proper stimulation through the nerves, they will not function properly.

The causes of the syndrome are unknown, but many experts think that the immune system is trying to fight an infectious organism (bacteria or virus) and accidentally injures nerve tissue in the process.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is uncommon, affecting fewer than 4,000 people in the United States each year. Why the disorder strikes some people is a mystery. In more than two-thirds of patients, Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs one to three weeks after a viral disease, including the common cold, flu, or infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein-Barr virus or cytomegalovirus. The most common infectious trigger seems to be a bacterial infection with Campylobacter jejuni, which causes intestinal infections. Occasionally, Guillain-Barré syndrome seems to follow immunization, surgery or bone marrow transplantation. Research into the causes of Guillain-Barré syndrome is ongoing.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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