What You Need to Know about Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) has been a hot topic among Dallas Cowboys fans, North Texans and the entire nation as news was recently released that Cowboys offensive lineman Travis Frederick has been diagnosed with the disorder.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of itself, typically the network of nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord. Due to the location of the nerves affected, GBS causes weakness or even paralysis in various parts of the body, usually starting at the feet and traveling upward.

“The hallmark that makes you think about this disease is weakness,” says Kevin Conner, M.D., a neurologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas health Arlington. “We typically talk about an ascending paralysis. It begins in the feet and it marches its way all the way up and can go into the eyes and the swallowing mechanism as well.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GBS affects about 1 in 100,000 people and an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year in the United States. While the exact cause is unknown, it is commonly believed that the immune response can be triggered by a recent infection from a virus or bacteria, such as the flu, pneumonia or a cold. GBS can occur at any age but is most common in individuals between the ages of 30 and 50.

Symptoms often start with a tingling sensation in the feet or hands and tend to disappear before the major, longer-term symptoms appear. Weakness on both sides of the body is what prompts many people to seek medical attention, with most people reaching the greatest stage of weakness within the first two weeks after symptoms appear.

In addition to muscle weakness, symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty with eye muscles and vision
  • Difficulty swallowing, speaking or chewing
  • Pricking or pins and needles sensations in the hands and feet
  • Pain that can be severe, particularly at night
  • Coordination problems and unsteadiness
  • Abnormal heartbeat/rate or blood pressure
  • Problems with digestion and/or bladder control

Conner says while the disorder does tend to progress fairly rapidly, 80 percent of those diagnosed with it recover completely, with many recovering within six months to a year.

During his announcement of his diagnosis, Frederick also revealed that he had already undergone two rounds of treatment for the disorder and his treatments will continue for several days.

There are currently two treatments commonly used for GBS — plasma exchange and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy. In plasma exchange, blood cells from the liquid part of the blood, or the plasma, are extracted from the patient and returned back. Plasma contains antibodies that may work in removing the harmful antibodies that are damaging the patient’s nerves.

In immunoglobulin therapy, immunoglobulins from thousands of donors are intravenously injected into the patient. These immunoglobulins are proteins that the immune system already makes naturally to attack infectious organisms. Researchers believe immunoglobulin therapy lowers the effectiveness of the harmful antibodies attacking the patient’s nerves.

Because of the possible complications of the disorder, Conner says treatment should be administered as soon as possible to reduce long-lasting damage and improve recovery.

“This can be an awful condition. It causes paralysis to the point where you have to have a machine to help you breathe or even a tube put in to help you eat,” he says. “The sooner you can kind of smolder the immune system, the better success you have in treatment. It shortens the duration and improves the recovery.”

As for Frederick, Conner says he’s optimistic that he will recover quickly and will be able to play professional football again.

“This guy is an elite athlete with a great work ethic,” he adds. “I’ll be curious to see how he progresses.”

For more information on neurological disorders or the neurological services offered at a Texas Health hospital near you, please visit TexasHealth.org/Neurosciences.

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