Guillain-Barre syndrome

February 16, 2017

Rare, but treatable

If this year is typical, as many as 6,000 people nationwide will develop Guillain-Barre syndrome—a iStock-504477658.jpgserious disorder that occurs when the body's immune system attacks nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

Usually, that weakness starts in the legs. But it can spread to the arms and upper body. In severe cases, it can affect the muscles that control breathing and be life-threatening.

Still a mystery

Doctors don't know what causes this syndrome. It's often preceded by an infectious illness, such as the flu. And recently, some countries facing Zika outbreaks have also reported an uptick in Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Although there's no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, treatment can help people recover. Usually, that treatment is in a hospital where some people may need a ventilator to breathe. It may also include:

A plasma exchange. Blood is removed from the body, and then the liquid portion of the blood—plasma—is separated from the blood cells. The blood cells are put back in the body without the plasma, which the body rapidly replaces. This exchange can eliminate antibodies that may contribute to nerve damage.

Immunoglobulin therapy. This delivers proteins that lessen the immune system's attack on nerve cells.

Physical therapy. Once a patient starts to regain limb control, physical therapy begins.

The good news: Most people eventually recover fully from Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institutes of Health

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