Definition of Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Reviewed on 1/13/2022

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder characterized by progressive symmetrical paralysis and loss of reflexes, usually beginning in the legs. The paralysis characteristically involves more than one limb (most commonly the legs), is progressive, and is usually proceeds from the end of an extremity toward the torso. Areflexia (loss of reflexes) or hyporeflexia (diminution of reflexes) may occur in the legs and arms.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is not associated with fever, an important fact in differentiating Guillain-Barré from other diseases. Guillain-Barré usually occurs after a respiratory infection, and it is apparently caused by a misdirected immune response that results in the direct destruction of the myelin sheath surrounding the peripheral nerves or of the axon of the nerve itself. The syndrome sometimes follows other triggering events, including vaccinations. Among the vaccines reportedly associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome are the swine flu vaccine, oral poliovirus vaccine, and tetanus toxoid. Aside from vaccinations, infection with the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni and viral infections can trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome.

There is presently no test to prove the diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Other conditions such as polio that may mimic Guillain-Barré need to be ruled out before the diagnosis is made. Treatment includes plasmapheresis and intravenous gamma globulin (IVIG). In most cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, the patient makes a complete or nearly complete recovery.

See also: Demyelination; Landry ascending paralysis; Polio.


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Jameson, J. Larry, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.

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