Treatment for GBS

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is considered a medical emergency and most patients are admitted to the hospital soon after diagnosis. If the patient's breathing seems to be at risk, he or she is usually managed in an intensive care unit (ICU). Although GBS can improve spontaneously, there are a number of treatments that facilitate recovery.

GBS and CIDP (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradicalneuropathy) can improve spontaneously. However, recovery may be very slow and the illness can either get progressively better or worse, or can follow a relapsing/remitting course.

Most patients with GBS and CIDP are treated with plasmapheresis or immunoglobulin. Corticosteroids may be used to treat CIDP but are not used to treat GBS, as it worsens rather than improves the condition.

Plasmapheresis

Patients diagnosed early in the course of the disease and those who are acutely ill often respond well to blood plasma exchange (plasmapheresis). In this procedure, blood is withdrawn and passed through a series of filters that separate the different types of blood cells. The blood cells are then suspended in donor or synthetic plasma and returned to the patient's body. The patient's plasma is discarded.

Plasmapheresis is thought to remove the substances that damage myelin. It can shorten the course of GBS, alleviate symptoms, and prevent paralysis.

Immunoglobulin

Large doses of immunoglobin given intravenously can help shorten the duration of GBS symptoms. This treatment is just as effective as plasmapheresis. It often is preferred to plasmapheresis because it does not require insertion of a large venous catheter.

Overall, about 70 percent of patients respond to plasmapheresis or immunoglobin. There is no evidence of additional benefit from treatment with both procedures.

Medications

Muscle and joint pain can be treated with over-the-counter analgesics such as aspirin. If necessary, stronger pain medication (e.g., acetaminophen with hydrocodone) may be prescribed. Muscle spasms can be controlled with relaxants such as diazepam (Valium).

Unpleasant sensation problems, such as painful tingling, can be treated with tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) or anticonvulsants such as gabapentin (Neurontin).

Corticosteroids, which often effectively treat the symptoms of autoimmune disorders, actually worsen Guillain-Barre syndrome and should not be used. However, they often are used to treat CIDP.

Physical therapy

Before recovery begins, caregivers move the patient's arms and legs to prevent stiffness. After symptoms subside, the rehabilitation team will prescribe an active exercise routine to help regain muscle strength and independence. Training with adaptive devices, such as a wheelchair or braces, give the patient mobility.

Hydrotherapy

Whirlpool therapy (hydrotherapy) may help relieve pain and be useful in retraining the movement of affected limbs.

Counseling

Counseling often is suggested to reassure patients diagnosed with GBS or CIDP and to help them feel positive about their treatment and recovery.

Publication Review By: Gordon R. Kelley, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2000

Last Modified: 17 Sep 2015