Guillain-Barré syndrome is an extremely serious and aggressive condition of the peripheral nervous system. However, provided the patient survives its early stages, it is not considered to reduce life expectancy.
The main threat to life is not the condition itself, but complications experienced during the acute early period. Provided one navigates these risks and the illness goes into remission there is no evidence that life expectancy is affected. It is reported that less than one per cent of those affected develop complications and that less than that percentage die.
The syndrome is caused by the immune system attacking the nerves that enable the brain to control the muscles in the body.
As the brain's capacity to control muscles is reduced various symptoms develop. Sufferers will experience muscle pain and numbness, which can lead to difficulty in walking and balancing. The numbness can then progressively develop, leading potentially to total paralysis.
The most dangerous development is when the muscle numbness builds around the heart and or lungs, which can lead to heart failure and respiratory collapse and death.
It is not known at this stage exactly what causes the condition to develop. It appears that viral or bacterial infections such as flu, bacteria found in under cooked chicken, and HIV can trigger the syndrome.
Patients will be treated either in a general ward, a neurological ward or in an Intensive Care Unit depending on how ill they are. There are two major treatments for the condition itself: intravenous immunoglobulin and plasma exchange. Both these treatments attack the antibodies in the blood stream that are affecting the peripheral nerves.
It is possible that a patient will need assistance with breathing if the paralysis causes problems to the lungs. It is reported that twenty-five percent of those affected by the syndrome will need to be placed on a ventilator for a period of time during their treatment.
The majority of patients make a full recovery, with no negative effects on life expectancy, although it can take months and in some cases years to achieve. Physiotherapy, counseling, and occupational therapy may well be required.
In a minority of cases, long-term difficulties are experienced. These difficulties tend to revolve around muscle weakness. They can include not being able to walk unaided, a lack of co-ordination, loss of balance and problems with the sense of touch. Some patients also complain of experiencing extreme fatigue.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is an extremely rare and potentially dangerous condition. Its spread through the body can be fast and aggressive. Its consequences can be severe, leading in a small number of cases to death.
It is very important to obtain treatment rapidly following the onset of the condition.
If the syndrome is diagnosed in its early stages and the patient closely monitored there is a very small chance of death or disability.
The majority of patients recover fully and there is no evidence that having experienced the syndrome life expectancy is in any way reduced.