What the heck is Guillain-Barre syndrome??

IMG_2685-5I hear that quite often when I tell people I was diagnosed with GBS. The first time I even heard the words “Guillain-Barre” in my life, was less than two years ago when I was being told I might have it. Less than 8 hours before that moment, I had a tingly finger, a pain in my neck and weakness in my legs. But now I could barely walk. My neurologist said something about it being rare, about monitoring me over the next little while to see how bad I got. No big deal. I had some rare thing, they would give me medicine and I would go home and be fine. That’s what happens at the hospital, right? Wrong. There is NO CURE for Guillain-Barre syndrome.

In my book, “Happily Ever After” I told my side of the story, I explained what GBS did to me emotionally and physically over a year. I explained my feelings, my fears, the challenges I faced and the obstacles I overcame. But what I didn’t dive into as much is exactly what Guillain-Barre is. And as I continue trying to create awareness, I feel it is important to dig deeper into GBS. I am by no means a Doctor, but I hope that this blog helps explain it to you all a bit more.

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system (the nerves that are not a part of the spinal cord or brain). GBS is caused by a reaction from the immune system. In a normal attack on our bodies (such as a virus or bacteria), our immune system immediately starts fighting off the infection. With me, my body saw an attack on my body (which is unknown – it could have been me giving birth to Casey, the epidural or C-section, or the flu I had, but they don’t know) and my immune system started to fight it off. The problem lies within my own immune system. My immune system continued to fight when it should have stopped. It overworked and after fighting what it needed to, it then started to attack my own body. People need to be aware that you don’t catch GBS, and it is not contagious. The disorder lies within my own body – MY immune system reacted incorrectly. Unfortunately it’s impossible to say why one persons’ body reacts this way when thousands don’t. But it is important that people know that these certain attacks do not cause GBS, they only trigger it.

As my immune system continued attacking my nerves, it started to damage the myelin sheathe around the nerve, or axon (basically, the nerve is a wire, and the myelin sheath is the plastic coating around the wire.) The nerves were unable to transmit a signal, which then caused my muscles to lose their ability to respond to commands. Essentially, I was paralyzed.

The most obvious symptom of GBS is tingling and weakness, which generally starts in the hands or feet and works its way upwards. When the doctor first saw me, he noted that I had no reflexes in my arms or legs. This made him think that I had GBS. A spinal tap was done to drain fluid from my spinal column to check the protein levels, (which are very high with GBS) and it was this procedure that lead to my diagnosis. I was very lucky that the Neurologist that saw me that night immediately had an idea of what was going on, and knew what test to complete. Unfortunately I have heard hundreds of stories of misdiagnosis, where patients go days or weeks before they finally find out what is going on.

Although my case was very severe in that I needed to be on a ventilator for months due to it affecting my breathing, this generally only happens in about 30% of GBS cases. Some people with very minor GBS do not require hospitalization – they improve quickly, and recover within weeks. In others cases, the paralysis is severe but only reaches as far as the waist – and the upper body remains unaffected. Either way, the majority of patients reach their weakest point around 2-3 weeks after their initial symptom- and then slowly start to recover. For me, I was unfortunate that the paralysis affected my entire body from the neck down and I did not start to recover for over 6 weeks.

Not only did it affect my nerves, it also affected my autonomic nervous system – the part of my body that controls blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and bodily functions. This caused my body to go haywire and all of these dysfunctioned. I could not go to the washroom without the help of a catheter and many medications. And my blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature were all dangerously high for a very long time.
Although there is no cure, the myelin sheathe around the nerves does regrow- as long as the damage is not too severe. Like I said before, in minor GBS cases, re-myelination occurs and recovery is rapid. But in more severe cases, the axon within the nerves is damaged and recovery depends on regeneration of the tissue. Generally, they say it takes an inch a month for the nerves to regrow. That is why GBS is often called Get Better Slowly, as it takes so long. Because I had such a severe case, we were told that it would be at least two years before I would walk again, as that is how long it would take for regrowth in my nerves to happen. They were wrong, and miraculously I was walking within 5 months.

Another thing that many people don’t know about GBS is that although most patients do make an almost complete recovery, there are those that do not. About 20% of patients are left with permanent residuals. Some people are unable to write or type as their fine motor skills never return and some require walking aids such as braces, canes, walkers and even wheelchairs. I was always told that I would eventually recover, and I am very fortunate that I was able to get back to my life. It absolutely breaks my heart when I meet others that are still affected by GBS years later. I consider myself extremely lucky. Thankfully, the only place where my nerves have not returned to normal is in my sense of touch in my fingertips and toes, and in the muscles in my ankles.

Because of the fact that it was MY immune system that malfunctioned, many people INCLUDING myself have wondered: if it reacted that way in the past, can it react that way again? The answer unfortunately, is yes. There is always a chance that it could happen again. BUT the chance is very rare, being about 5-10%. I personally do not get the flu shot because of the chance it could be a trigger for me (it is definitely linked to many GBS cases) . Of course I will always wonder if it was being pregnant, giving birth, the C-section or the epidural that was the trigger for GBS in me, and because of that fear, I have already made the decision not to have more children. That risk is just not worth it to me, even if the chance of recurrence is so low. 

Guillain-Barre is very unknown, but it is not as rare as you may think. It effects about 1-2 in every 100,000 people a year. So in a city the size of Edmonton, it would effect on average 10 people a year. Still, most people have never heard of GBS. Some doctors and nurses I had, had never dealt with it before and some of them did not know how exactly to care for me. My aim is to change that. I want Gulllain-Barre to become a household name – not because it becomes more common, but because it is important for people to recognize the signs early on, and it’s important for our medical staff to know what they are dealing with and how to handle it. And I as I continue on with my journey I can’t help but feel privileged to be able to promote awareness on Guillain-Barre syndrome even more, and I hope you found this blog post useful.

If you or someone you know is looking for more information or support on Guillain-Barre syndrome, and are in the Alberta area, please email me at holly.gerlach@hotmail.com. I am a liaison with the GBS Foundation and would love to support you in any way that I can.

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About hollyaftergbs

Author of Happily Ever After - My Journey with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and How I Got My Life Back.
This entry was posted in 2013 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What the heck is Guillain-Barre syndrome??

  1. Victor Ybarra says:

    I had guillain Barre January 1 of 2003. What an “awesome” way to start the year. I still have some issues today.

  2. Barb Crissman says:

    I had GBS when i was 2 yrs. old.I’m now 41. I don’t remember too much about it due to being young.I came from a family of some strong” prayer warrior ” Christi.ans.I strongly believe they are the reason i’m here today.I do remember them telling me my mom went to sit me on the pot and i collapsed when i went to stand up.My heart stopped about a dozen times from home to the hospital.I was in the hospital for maybe about a year?! I was paralyzed from the neck down,on a breathing tube.I still have a scar from the tracheotomy.I went through physical therapy to learn how to walk again. I walk with a limp now.I have no muscles in my ankle that would help lift up my foot. So i have a dropped foot.However i can walk with no problem.I have 4 healthy kids and a husband.I am a Christian like my grandma and her sisters.I believe God uses people to reach out to others.That’s what i believe he is doing with you Holly.You have a beautiful daughter,by the way.The way you have described her reminds me of my daughter Abby.I have 3 boys and my youngest is my daughter Abby.She is the happiest,kind hearted ,bubbly girl ever! I wouldn’t have had my life done any other way.God bless you Holly and your 2nd chance at it! May you continue to be strong and reach out to others!-Barb Crissman

    • hollygerlach says:

      THank you Barb! I hope that reading what Ive been through has reminded you how strong you are! To go through what you did at 2 years is so incredible. You must be a very strong woman 🙂

  3. Shannon Green says:

    I got GBS 3-2014 & I still struggle to walk & I fall a lot. My neuro doc says Lyrica has a side effect of making legs buckle & that is why I am falling.

  4. Saira says:

    My fiancee was diagnosed with GBS last October and luckily is making a great recovery, however is in so much pain daily and gets fatigued so fast. This is a great post 🙂 thank you

  5. Anonymous says:

    thank you for ordinary language explanation, my nephew has had GBS for approximately 4 years and is still fighting the constant agonizing pain…his was caused because of surgery done on his back after a terrible 4-wheeler accident that broke his back and they fused it, then while in hospital he caught c-dificil which didn’t help either, then when the GBS hit, he was totally paralyzed from top of head to toes (only thing moving was 1 eyelid), he was on a ventilator for almost 1 \month in ICU, and even then he ended up with pneumonia, etc, so there were lots of triggers to start the GBS….today he is still fighting the constant agonizing pain and is still in a wheelchair (but not knowing yet if unable to walk due to broken back or GBS. My brother and sis-in-law are well-informed on this matter, it was just me who didn’t understand everything they tried to explain GBS to me

    • hollygerlach says:

      Thanks, I am glad to help others understand it more clearly. I wish your nephew all the best in the future, hopefully he is able to find something to ease his pain.

    • hollygerlach says:

      Hi, so sorry to hear about your nephew. How is he doing now? If you haven’t already, I would read the GBS handbook : if you go to the GBS foundation website they can get you a copy of the book for free. It will teach you everything you need to know about the technical side of GBS. My book I believe will help you understand how he is feeling, and might be great for your nephew to see that others who have been through what he has.


  6. Sheila says:

    This is great. I appreciate this information being more in layman’s terms so I can better explain it to people who are curious what GBS is. Thank you!

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