Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare, but potentially life-threatening condition, which can affect heart function, breathing, speech and mobility. In the early stages of this condition, patients require treatment in a high-dependency unit, and further support is generally needed in the recovery period, which can sometimes last for a lifetime.
So what exactly is Guillain-Barre syndrome and what is the life expectancy for those who contract it?
Guillain-Barre syndrome usually occurs after an infection such as a stomach bug, influenza, or more recently the Zika virus. Symptoms generally appear over a couple of weeks, although occasionally this can be much faster, but because of their life-threatening implications, it's essential to seek medical intervention quickly.
Following the initial infection, patients begin to experience problems with their feet, such as numbness or tingling. Over time, this spreads upwards throughout the body. The symptoms include:
The acute phase (i.e. as these symptoms develop), usually last around four weeks, and the patient will need significant medical support, especially as the heart and lungs become involved. It's during this phase that most deaths occur from Guillain-Barre syndrome - around three to seven patients in 100 will die.
There are several variants of Guillain-Barre syndrome, but the rarest and most deadly is Acute Panautonomic Neuropathy, which causes encephalopathy (affects brain function) and cardiac dysrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat).
Treating Guillain-Barre syndrome involves giving direct support to the patient, such as ventilator support or a tracheotomy, once the lungs become affected.
Treatment to combat the infection is also necessary. Blood treatments, like a plasma exchange to reduce the number of antibodies, are critical. The earlier the infection is tackled, the less likely it is that the condition will spread to essential organs such as the heart, lungs or brain, so life expectancy during this acute phase depends on prompt diagnosis and treatment.
The recovery phase generally lasts just a few weeks, but can last many months or even years. During this period, patients may need further treatment, such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy etc. to recover bodily functions and strength. In some case, only a limited recovery is made. For example, some people continue to have mobility issues and need to use a wheelchair.
Most deaths from Guillain-Barre syndrome occur during the acute phase, and despite progress in swift diagnosis and treatments, the mortality rate in Europe and North America remains stubbornly at around 3%.
Some forms of Guillain-Barre syndrome are less severe. Symptoms during the initial stages are not so acute and patients tend to recover quickly. So life expectancy during the early stages depends partly on the form of the condition.
Early diagnosis also makes a difference, as it can help prevent the spread of the paralysis, so critical life functions aren't affected or the impact is less severe.
Once the patient has reached the recovery phase, the outlook is much brighter. Around 90% of patients recover within four weeks, with most making a full recovery. Although the condition can reoccur, this doesn't seem to have an impact on overall mortality rates.
For those who have some degree of incapacitation, life expectancy is only reduced if this incapacity affects aspects such as heart and lung function.
Research shows that patients most at risk from suffering and early death from Guillain-Barre syndrome are:
While Guillain-Barre syndrome can be life threatening in the acute phase, the outlook on life expectancy can be significantly improved by early diagnosis, prompt treatment, and effective after-care. Patients in the recovery phase only have a reduced life expectancy in very specific circumstances.