Guillain Barre Syndrome is a severe condition in which the body's own immune system begins to attack the peripheral nervous system. It is quite rare, with only around 1,200 cases being diagnosed annually, with the majority being in adults between the ages of 30 and 50. Although the cause of Guillain-Barre has not yet been pinpointed, in the majority of cases it occurs following a bout of illness caused by bacterial or viral infections which may have acted as a catalyst for the syndrome.
Diagnosis of Guillain-Barre is generally based on recognition of the most common symptoms, which tend to begin in the patient's feet and hands before progressing to other parts of the body, namely the arms and legs. Patients may experience some pain, numbness or tingling followed by weakness in the affected muscles, and problems with co-ordination leading to difficulty in moving and walking around without help. Both sides of the body are generally equally affected and symptoms are likely to get progressively worse over the course of several days.
The main difficulty with the diagnosis of Guillain Barre Syndrome is that the symptoms are often very similar to those connected to other disorders relating to the brain or nervous system. Symptoms can also vary from patient to patient making diagnosis even more challenging.
Anyone who is experiencing symptoms similar to those associated with Guillain-Barre, including muscle weakness, pain or paralysis after suffering from a viral or bacterial infection should see their doctor for tests. Although a GP may be able to reach a diagnosis from an examination and discussion of symptoms, it is likely that the patient will need to be sent to hospital for specific tests.
There are two main tests carried out to detect whether Guillain Barre Syndrome is the cause of a patient's symptoms.
The first is an EMG test or Electromyography. This tests the effectiveness of the muscles by recording their level of activity when a fine needle is passed into them. In Guillain Barre syndrome, muscles may not respond properly. The effectiveness of the nerves is also tested by using an electrode to give the nerves a shock. If they are slow to respond, it may indicate Guillain-Barre is the cause of the problem.
Another test commonly used to detect the condition is a lumbar puncture. This is a procedure involving inserting a needle into a space in the lower spine. Local anaesthetic is used before carrying out this procedure. This test is used to measure the cerebrospinal fluid's cell count and how high its protein levels are. This indicates how much inflammation is present and will also help to rule out any other causes of the symptoms.
Once a patient has been diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, they will receive hospital treatment for several weeks or months until the condition subsides.