What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?

I hear that all the time. People will ask me how I got the scar on my neck, or will say they heard that I had a rare disease, and ask what I had. When I tell them I had GBS, not many people will say they know what that is. Guillain-Barre syndrome is not a well-known illness at all. The first time I myself heard the words Guillain-Barre, was when I was being told I might have it. Less than 8 hours before that, I was a healthy 26 year old. It had started with a tingly finger, a pain in my neck and weakness in my legs. By the time I was at the hospital I could barely walk anymore. My neurologist told me they would need to monitor me over the next little while to see how bad I got. No big deal. I was sick, 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. 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, our immune system immediately starts fighting off an infection (such as a virus or bacteria). With me, my body saw an attack 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 me; my immune system reacted incorrectly. Unfortunately it’s impossible to say why one persons’ body reacts this way, when thousands don’t.

So what sort of things can trigger GBS? While it’s impossible to pinpoint, (and doctors will rarely say exactly what it was) I myself have met people whose cases of GBS came on a few weeks after they had the flu, a stomach bug, a virus, during pregnancy, after giving birth and even from stress. It has also came on for others who have had surgery, a flu shot, other vaccines, an epidural, and the Zika Virus. For me, it came on shortly after I gave birth. I had also had a C-section, an epidural and then the flu a week later, so it’s hard to say exactly what it was that triggered my GBS.

As the illness starts to progress, and as the immune system begins to attack the nerves, it starts 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 are then unable to transmit a signal, which causes the muscles to lose their ability to respond to commands. Essentially, weakness starts to spread throughout your body, slowly paralyzing you.

One of the very first symptoms of GBS is usually tingling and weakness, which typically starts in the hands or feet and works its way inwards. When the doctor first saw me, my arms and legs were very weak, and I no longer had any reflexes, which 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 official 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.

My case ended up being quite severe – the paralysis spread to most of my body, which paralyzed my diaphragm and affected my ability to breathe on my own – so I needed to breathe through a machine for 2 ½ months. However this doesn’t always happen. Only about 30% of GBS cases require mechanical ventilation and need to be in ICU. Some people with minor GBS don’t even require hospitalization – they improve quickly, and recover within weeks. In others cases, the paralysis may be 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, 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 other body functions. My blood pressure, my heart rate and body temperature were all dangerously high for a very long time which is another reason I was in ICU. Because I was paralyzed, I could not go to the washroom without the help of a catheter and many medications. And because I was hooked up to a machine to breathe, I could not talk or eat. I communicated to my family by mouthing words, and was fed through a tube in my stomach.

When a person is paralyzed in bed with GBS, it is not only physically painful, it is also very emotionally challenging. Some experience such severe pain that can be very difficult to treat. The stress of being bedridden, in pain, having other people completely take care of you, and not knowing if you are ever going to get better, can cause severe anxiety and depression. Many patients believe they are dying, or feel hopeless and wish they would die. Most GBS patients are treated with some form of anxiety medication and anti-depressants.

Although there is no cure, the myelin sheathe around the nerves do start to regrow – as long as the damage is not too severe. In minor GBS cases, re-myelination occurs and recovery is rapid. In more severe cases, the axon within the nerves is damaged and recovery depends on regeneration of the tissue. Usually, specialists say it takes an inch a month for the nerves to regrow. That is why GBS is often called Get Better Slowly. In general, the only thing that will help a patient improve is time. However there are treatments that are provided to try to help speed up recovery. The two most common treatments for GBS are IVIG and Plasmapheresis. IVIG is a process that involves removing the plasma from your blood and replacing it with new plasma (with new antibodies), and Plasmapheresis is a process that involves removing blood from your body and “cleaning” the plasma before putting it back into your body. I had both of these treatments.

The other treatment that almost all GBS patients require is physiotherapy. As the nerves start to come back and as movement is regained, the muscles in the body require intense therapy to strengthen them to a point of use again. The first thing that I had to learn how to do when I started to improve was breathing on my own. I practiced this by spending a few minutes a day off the ventilator and slowly increased it as time went on until I was breathing on my own again. Then it was my hands and arms, followed by my core and torso, then my feet and legs. Full time therapy at a rehab hospital is quite common, (as is being in a wheelchair for some time) and patients need to strengthen their muscles until they can learn how to eat with utensils, how to brush their teeth, how to pick up objects, and other day to day activities. Eventually they may be strong enough to get out of the wheelchair and learn how to walk with a cane, then walk with a walker, and then walk on their own. This timeframe typically span over the course of a few months to a few years. For me, it was about 6 months before I was walking on my own again. I have met those that it took only a week or two, and others who are still learning 7+ years later.

Although a large majority of patients do make an almost complete recovery by two years after onset, 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. Many experience fatigue. 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, and attribute it to my young age at the time of my diagnosis. Thankfully, my residuals are fairly minor.

Because of the fact that it was my own immune system that malfunctioned, many people, including myself, have asked: if it reacted that way in the past, can it react that way again? The answer unfortunately, is yes, there is a chance that it could happen again. But the chance of recurrence is only about 5-10%. However because of that, I have made the personal decision not to get the flu shot or other vaccines that have been linked to GBS. And with it coming on so quickly after I gave birth, I have also decided not to have any more children. Even if the chance of recurrence is extremely low, and there are no guarantees that these things could trigger it again, that risk is just not worth it to me.

Guillain-Barre is quite unknown, but it is not as rare as most people think. It effects about 1-2 in every 100,000 people a year. So in a city the size of Edmonton, Alberta, 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 really know how to care for me. My own family doctor has never seen a case of GBS in his whole career. As I mentioned before, many people go undiagnosed for some time because of health care professional’s lack of experience with it. It is very important to recognize the signs early on, and it’s important for our medical staff to know what they are dealing with and how to properly handle it. And I as I continue on in my life now, I can’t help but feel privileged to be able to promote awareness on Guillain-Barre syndrome. And I hope you found this post useful and will share it with others!! ❤

To learn more about Holly’s Journey with GBS – Check out her YouTube video here.



About hollyaftergbs

Author of Happily Ever After - My Journey with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and How I Got My Life Back.
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26 Responses to What is Guillain-Barre syndrome?

  1. Amy Ayers says:

    There are so many autoimmune diseases. I have Multiple Sclerosis. I was reading this blog and could not believe how close it is the MS, the difference being it affecting the peripheral nervous system (the nerves that are not a part of the spinal cord or brain) where as MS is the spinal cord or brain being affected. Some people progress slowly while others progress quite fast. I am very happy to here you have recovered and thank you so much for sharing your story.

    • Yes! You are so right! As someone that never really experienced health issues before GBS, I have come to learn so much about auto immune diseases. GBS is very similar to MS, only that it tends to be a one time episode vs. MS which can be multiple. But when people ask me what GBS is I usually say it’s similar to MS. Hope you are doing well and able to manage your MS ❤️

  2. kathleen lupo says:

    God Bless You Holly, & lets not leave out your beautiful husband, & family & friends. Can’t imagine what they went through. Up & on to bigger & better things for all. You have been blessed.

  3. Shari says:

    I just had neck surgery and am bothered by the scar…now I feel silly after seeing what she
    went through. My best friends daughter has CIDP which is the chronic version- she is only 12 and has treatments every month to keep it at bay. So scary!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great article. My mom was ones that did not not recover . She has been a quadraplegic for 18 years. I think your article is accurate- but I still can not read it without crying.

    • I am so sorry to hear that your mother did not recover. This illness is so devastating especially when it leaves someone in a wheelchair. I do hope that she is living life to the fullest in any way that she is able to, and does not let her disability hold her back. It is so key to a happy life!!

  5. Amy Daly says:

    P.S. I do hope to write off this experience again.

  6. Amy Daly says:

    I read your story and wasn’t sure how you knew my story. As I began it sounded as if I were listening to myself speak. Something happened am not sure what but I felt I I was finally able to see me in print. My experience was severe. I laid in ICU for 8 weeks. Three attempts for me to breathe on my own and battling my arms to say “let me go let me die.” I was paralyzed from my waist down. My arms and hands were weak but we’re enough at last attempt they figured out what I was trying to say and couldn’t. One last attempt and God began to allow my body to breathe. Afterwards I amazedeveryone. I began to talk, eat and finally a chance to walk within days. Amazed were drs staff it seemed for a moment the world. I was moved to a rehabilitation to ask I call it to “fine tune” my skills. And it was over, I had survived this “thing” you call GBS. I have walking abilities of only short distances, minor paralysis here and there and a weak body and abilities but well here I am. “This is me what’s left.” Lol

  7. Anonymous says:

    Great Read~! I had GBS too.

  8. Pete Hutt says:

    I have just read your posting regarding GBS. Very well written and so many points hit home.
    I contracted GBS on hol in Australia 2006. I’m from England. I was ill before with flu sore throat and week after was getting pins and needles and loss of balance.
    The local GP said it was reaction to penicillin which I took for throat. On my 2nd visit to hospital where I could hardly walk they took one look at me and rushed me into A&E hooked me up to ECG asked lots of questions and got the neurologist in as he was at home then to talk to me run tests. That’s when I 1st heard of GBS. He said I had the Miller Fisher variant which also affects balance. From there I went to ICU for 2 days with respiratory, blood pressure checks every 15 mins thru night I also had 20 bottles of plasma dripped into me for next 4 days. Oh I had MRI and an acupuncture as well. After a week on High risk ward I was consider ok enough to be moved to rehab n start to learn to walk again. I spent 3 weeks there before under medical insurance I was flown home 1st class with nurse on board to continue my rehab.
    I met and talked to a few others who had GBS one chap had it 2 years before and was still in splints and receiving rehab. I learnt from these people and neurologist that it’s the speed the myelin sheath is stripped away ie with the chap I’ve just mentioned his went overnight, mine took longer n so was more gradual so I was able to get treatment before it had completely gone.
    One of the hardest things and you mentioned it was you go down with GBS before you come up, my sister and mum where making plans to fly out to Oz n I remember the conv with my sister as if it was yesterday when she asked me, look are you getting better or worse, as we need to get tickets. At the back of my mind I thought I’d turned the corner, said give me the weekend I’ll have an answer. By end of weekend I was well enough to start my rehab so I was right.
    On returning to England I continued my rehab I was in a wheelchair for flight back. Took about 3 months to be somewhere back to normal. I still get the tingling in my feet n hands sometimes not sure if this is as a result of GBS.

    I was very interested to read your experience with GBS and your thoughts. It isn’t that well known illness. Thanks for posting.

  9. Karen Ames says:

    Very well written and said. From a fellow sufferer.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Had it. Although not as severe as this blog.,long time to recover.
    Scary stuff

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hey hello I am a patient of GBS and your article is very informative.

  12. Wonderful explanation and account of a puzzling and challenging syndrome. I knew about this b/c I worked in a big hospital yrs ago as a medical interpreter. My mother was challenged with transverse myeltis in 1945, at the age of 21, married less than 2 weeks. Coma, Iron lung, typhoid
    therapy’ to stop the virus. but similar effects. She wore braces for years. but was a pioneer in so many ways. For 1, she had several children! Me being the first, much to consternation of her dr. She has some serious paralysis in her limbs. She also lived a full life to 88 passing a few years ago. painting and computing til the very end, so sharp and a great inspiration to so many. We did physical therapy every day, my earliest memories. bless you.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I had this when I was in my 20s, nearly 40 years ago. It took almost a year before I was off medications and doing better. I still have never regained the energy levels from before I got sick. The issue than became what other autoimmune disorders are in the future. I developed lymphoma when I was 54 and also got through that after 6 months of treatments. People who have autoimmune disorders should be aware that they may develop other disorders in the future, so taking good care yourself is VITALLY important . Thanks for sharing this.

  14. Hazel L. Riggs says:

    Thank you for sharing this. My daughter experienced GBS in like manner (severity -/treatment was the same) 3 years ago. She is now walking on her own but has not regained feeling in her lower legs and feet so she has to be careful when walking. She was hospitalized for 5 months. Most of her treatment took place at The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a wonderful place for patient and family.

  15. Anonymous says:

    25 years ago my mom was diagnosed with gbs, this is the first artical/blog that i have read that completly explains the horror that this illness is. We are still living with the residual effects to this day.

  16. Victoria says:

    Great job here, Holly! Brought me to tears and flashbacks. I am so happy for you and your life and pray you continue to do so well. You are a remarkable woman! ❤️

  17. chickenunderwear says:

    Greetings. I included your blog in my website. It’s a list of first-person accounts of people who are battling GPS and its variants.


  18. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this Blog. My wife got GBS in 2007 and is still being treated. Thank the Lord it was not as critical as your case but, she is still affected by damaged nerves in her feet and her hands. Also she use to walk a mile in 18 min. and now she can’t walk half that distance.

  19. Rex says:

    I love everything you have posted here and wish you well , i’m still dealing with alot of issues myself and GBS suks .

  20. Linda McDonald says:

    Hi Holly
    I have read your book and could relate well with your journey. I got GBS in Dec 2014 while we were visiting our daughter in New Jersey. I will share your story as I also like to be able to give people detailed information. Take care. Cheers Linda

  21. Anonymous says:

    This is by far the most informative information I have ever read about GBS!
    Thank you so much for sharing!
    Sharona Sands

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