Diagnosing Guillain-Barre Syndrome


What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is a neurological autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in the body’s peripheral nervous system (the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord). The muscles lose the ability to respond to commands from the brain. This causes weakness or even paralysis, which is usually temporary. GBS can also interrupt sensory signals to the brain.

How is Guillain-Barre syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosing Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) can be a challenge because symptoms vary from person to person and are similar to several other neurological disorders. It is especially difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages.

Diagnostic process

The diagnostic process typically begins with a thorough medical history and physical exam. A health care professional will ask whether symptoms are experienced on one or both sides of the body and how quickly the symptoms have progressed. They will also inquire about any recent illnesses or infections. The reflexes in the legs and arms, which may be absent with GBS, will also be checked.

Diagnostic tests

Based on the information acquired from a medical history and physical exam, certain diagnostic tests may also be ordered:

  • Spinal tap or lumbar puncture
    A needle is inserted into the lower back to remove a small amount of spinal fluid. Individuals with GBS typically have higher than normal cerebrospinal fluid protein and very few white blood cells. However, these findings may take up to 10 days after symptoms develop to show in the spinal fluid.
  • Electromyography
    Thin needles are inserted into the muscles to check nerve activity.
  • Nerve conduction study
    Electrodes are taped to the skin over certain nerves. A signal is sent through the nerves, and the speed of the signal is measured. Individuals with GBS often have signal speeds that are slower than normal.
  • Blood tests
    Although blood tests, such as a complete blood count, are typically normal with GBS, they may be ordered to rule out other conditions.
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