Guillain-Barré Syndrome: What is it and how is it treated?

Endothelial injury means damage to a blood vessel wall and this can happen, for example, following surgery

Have you ever experienced weakness, tingling or even numbness of the feet, hands and sometimes the face? This, health experts say, could be signs of a condition known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Celestine Karangwa, a physiotherapist at TCM Technology Clinic in Remera, says this condition is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves.

He says as a physiotherapist, they normally handle cases where patients have physical difficulties resulting from illness, injury, disability or ageing in order to improve their movement.

However, he says, sometimes they also deal with those who are paralysed. Because Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a rare neurological disorder which causes progressive paralysis starting from the feet and progressing up throughout the rest of the body, they sometimes handle such cases.

How it happens, he explains, is that the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nerves, and this can be triggered following a surgical infection, or by a flu-like illness or stomach infection.

He says it is at this point that the immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nerves as it tries to fight off the infection.


Karangwa says when one is suffering from this condition, there are some symptoms that normally tend to progress over a short period of time and can get worse just weeks later.

For the mild case of this condition, one can have slight weakness or numbness, which in most cases doesn’t require treatment. However, for the severe cases, one can experience profound weakness, respiratory difficulties, or unstable blood pressure; at this point, quick medical attention is needed.

Francis Kazungu, a general practitioner in Kigali, says some other signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barré Syndrome may manifest as prickling sensations in the fingers, toes, ankles and even wrists.

He says that this weakness in the toes could even spread to the upper body, adding that one can experience unsteady walking or inability to walk or go up a flight of stairs.

Kazungu says in some cases, there is difficulty with eye or facial movements, including speaking, chewing or swallowing.

“Some patients may experience severe pain, and it could get worse at night. There is also difficulty with bladder control or bowel function as well,” he says.

He says having low or high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, having difficulty when it comes to breathing, are just some of the other symptoms that are present when one is suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

He notes that some people may experience residual symptoms and sometimes the condition can recur as well.


According to Mayo Clinic, the exact cause of Guillain-Barré Syndrome is unknown. But it is often preceded by an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu.

Mayo says that there’s no known cure for Guillain-Barré Syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness. Most people recover from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, though some may experience lingering effects from it, such as weakness, numbness or fatigue.

Mayo states that Guillain-Barré Syndrome affects the nerves and that because nerves control the  movements and body functions, people with it may experience breathing difficulties, residual numbness or other sensations, heart and blood pressure, among others.

When it comes to breathing difficulties, Karangwa says the weakness or paralysis can spread to the muscles that control the breathing, which according to him is a potentially fatal complication.

Mayo indicates that up to 30 per cent of people with Guillain-Barré Syndrome need temporary help from a machine to breathe when they’re hospitalised for treatment.

Karangwa says some of the common side effects that can result from this condition are blood pressure fluctuations and irregular heart rhythms.

“There is severe pain experienced by patients suffering from the condition, and this can only be eased or stopped by the treatment,” he says.

He adds that with this condition, one can develop slow bowel function and urine retention as well.


Kazungu says when one seeks medical attention early, it can help speed up recovery. 

According to Mayo Clinic, plasmapheresis is the treatment that is used to treat Guillain-Barré Syndrome and it helps remove antibodies from the blood.

Antibodies are a part of the immune system and normally help the body fight inflammation and infection. With conditions like Guillain-Barré Syndrome, certain antibodies damage nerves and cause a loss of transmission of electrical signals to the muscles.

Plasmapheresis works by separating a person’s blood into its two main components: cells and plasma. The cells are returned to the body, and that works best for people with Guillain-Barré Syndrome if started within the first two weeks of symptom onset.

Karangwa says the best way to stay healthy is to make regular physical activity a part of your daily routine and to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet always.


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