Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is the most common cause of sudden-onset paralysis in the developed world, causing more than 6,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States alone. Each year GBS is estimated to affect about 1–2 people per every 100,000 living in the U.S. or Europe. (1)
What are the first signs of Guillain-Barre? Numbness and tingling in the legs, feet and toes is typically the first symptom that patients develop. Some might notice these symptoms in their arms or face first, making it difficult to close their eyes, speak or chew normally.
While most people with GBS will go on to recover, some will develop severe symptoms and potentially even permanent disabilities. Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome deadly? When the condition is severe enough — leading to complications such as pulmonary embolism, respiratory failure or a heart attack — it can be life-threatening. Several treatments, including plasma exchanges and/or intravenous immunoglobulins, can limit the severity of GBS and reduce patients’ risk for a broad range of complications.
There are also natural ways to support recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome, such as physical therapy, a healthy diet, pain management and prevention of gastrointestinal issues.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome is an inflammatory disorder in which someone’s immune system attacks their nerves, causing symptoms like weakness, numbness, tingling and pain. (2)
Symptoms usually affect the limbs, fingers and toes first, and then can spread to other parts of the body. When someone has GBS, their nerves, which carry signals between the body and the brain, stop working as they normally should. The myelin sheath, which is the nerves’ protective coating, becomes damaged, interfering with normal signaling, motor control and ability to do everyday activities like chew food, get dressed and walk.
There are several different subtypes of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which include: (3)
- Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP) — This is the most common type in the U.S., usually causing muscle weakness that starts in the lower body that then spreads. AIDP accounts for about 90 percent of all GBS cases in the U.S. and Europe. (4)
- Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS) — This type accounts for about 5 percent of GBS cases in the U.S. and a higher proportion in Asia. It causes paralysis in the eyes and loss of balance/coordination.
- Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) — This type is more common in China, Japan and Mexico, but not common in the U.S.
Can a person recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome? There’s currently no “cure” for Guillain-Barre syndrome, yet most people with the disorder will have a good prognosis and chance at full recovery. Research suggests that between 50–90 percent of people with GBS are able to recovery completely, avoiding any permanent impairments.
How long does it take to recover from Guillain-Barre syndrome? Recovery can take several months, or sometimes even longer depending on the severity of someone’s symptoms. Several treatments are now available that can help speed up the recovery process and prevent symptoms from becoming severe. Still, patients with moderate or severe GBS still spend an average of one to two months in the hospital, due to the need for respiratory support and other treatments.
Signs and Symptoms
Once someone experiences their first symptom of GBS, other symptoms tend to appear and worsen over the course of about two weeks. How long will GBS symptoms last? Most will have symptoms for about two to four weeks, although they can sometimes last longer and linger for months.
The most common symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome include: (5)
- Numbness and tingling (described as prickling pains or “pins and needles“), usually beginning in the fingers or toes
- Muscle weakness, especially in the legs and lower body first, which can spread to the upper body
- Trouble walking or climbing
- Pain in the lower back, which is sometimes severe
- Difficulty with eye movements
- Trouble making facial expressions, speaking, chewing and swallowing
- Difficulty with bladder control and intestinal functions, causing GI problems such as constipation and changes in urination frequency
- Rapid heart rate (also called tachycardia)
- Low or high blood pressure
- Sweating abnormalities
If Guillain-Barre syndrome becomes severe, complications and emergency symptoms may occur. These can include: (6)
- Numbness and tingling all over the body
- Difficulty breathing
- Intense pain
- Muscle weakness that progresses in paralysis and loss of muscular/motor control
- Blood clots
- Pressure sores
- Permanent disability/impairments, which occurs in about 15–20 percent of GBS cases
Can you die from GBS disease? It’s rare for GBS to be deadly, but it is possible. Some people with severe complications may die due to ongoing respiratory infection or a heart attack.
Depending on how severe someone’s GBS is, the disorder can sometimes be considered a medical emergency and a life-threatening condition. Having GBS may require hospitalization in order for the patient to receive emergency respiratory assistance if they’re having trouble breathing. Some patients also require long-term rehabilitation in order to relearn how to perform everyday tasks that require control over their muscles. About 3 percent of people who have GBS will experience a relapse after recovery.
Causes and Risk Factors
It’s still not entirely known what causes Guillain-Barre syndrome, although infections affecting the lungs and digestive organs are common in many people with GBS. It’s estimated that about 60 percent of people with GBS have an infection before developing the disorder.
There’s still more to learn about why some people with infections — especially those of the lungs/GI tract — develop GBS and why others do not. Even though certain risk factors have been identified, in a large number of cases there is no identifiable trigger or cause for the disorder.
At this time it’s believed that the most common causes/risk factors of Guillain-Barre syndrome are: (7)
- History of an infection, such as a respiratory infection, the stomach flu or infections caused by the bacteria called campylobacter. This bacteria is commonly found in raw or undercooked foods, especially chicken/poultry. Infections/illnesses that have been linked to GBS include: cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis A, B, C and E, HIV/AIDS, and mycoplasma pneumonia
- Having recently had surgery (considered a rare cause)
- Recent history of the influenza (flu) immunization (considered a rare cause)
- In recent years, history of the Zika virus, a virus transmitted by certain mosquitoes that can lead to complications including birth defects
- History of Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Being a man, since men tend to develop GBS more often than women
- Being a young adult
Doctors usually make a Guillain-Barre diagnosis based on a patient’s physical symptoms, medical history and test results. Typically a doctor will perform a physical exam and run several diagnostic tests, which can include an analysis of cerebral fluid that is obtained via a spinal tap, an electromyography test to check nerve activity in muscles, or a nerve conduction study to test the speed of nerve signals.
Once a diagnosis is made, doctors typically use one or more treatments, including medications and blood exchanges, to help patients recover more easily and quickly. Treatments for Guillain-Barre syndrome include:
- Intravenous immunoglobulin — This treatment involves administering healthy antibodies that are sourced from blood donors. Immunoglobulins can help reduce inflammatory responses of the immune system by blocking antibodies that contribute to GBS.
- Plasmapheresis — This is a type of “blood cleansing” procedure, also called a plasma exchange, in which antibodies are removed from the blood in order to reduce hyperactivity of the immune system. This involves separating the liquid part of the blood from the blood cells, then putting blood cells back in so they can help new plasma to develop. (8)
- Some patients will need prophylaxis treatment to reduce their risk for pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a clump of material, usually a blood clot, gets wedged into an artery in the lungs. Treatment can include taking heparin (5,000 units twice daily) or low–molecular-weight heparin (40 milligrams daily), which is used as an anticoagulant. Compression stockings or other compression devices are also commonly used.
Physical therapy and medications to manage pain may also be used, depending on the patient’s symptoms. Physical therapy is important if muscle weakness becomes very bad and the patient is unable to move their arms or legs. A therapist may need to manually move and stretch the limbs for a period of time during the patient’s recovery to help prevent stiffness and swelling. Some patients with severe GBS will also need to be put on a ventilator to help them breathe.
Preventing viruses/infections that can potentially lead to GBS is very important, considering there is no real cure for the disorder once it develops. Below are tips for preventing illnesses that can sometimes develop into more serious inflammatory conditions:
- Check travel warnings — Some viruses, such as Zika, are only transmitted in certain parts of the world. You can lower your odds of catching some viruses by avoiding travel in high-risk areas. Check the CDC’s updated travel advisories webpage for the latest warnings.
- Use insect repellents — Repellents can help to keep mosquito bites, ticks and other insect bites at bay. Citronella oil is also sometimes used for mosquito control. You can also wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors in high-risk areas to reduce your risk of a bite.
- Practice safe sex — Limit the number of sexual partners you have. Always use a condom to protect against certain infections/viruses, including hepatitis.
- Don’t eat raw/undercooked meat — Raw meat and fish are more likely to carry dangerous bacteria that can lead to illnesses or parasites. Cook meat thoroughly, wash your hands when handling raw meat, and wash any surfaces or equipment you use when cooking afterwards.
Natural Ways to Manage Symptoms
1. Physical Therapy & Movement
According to a report published in the journal Neurohospitalist, “Physical therapy for GBS as an inpatient and continuing upon discharge is associated with better outcomes and recommended for all but the mildest cases.” (9)
Physical therapy is usually recommended to help regain strength, muscle control, good posture and flexibility. Physical therapy should be initiated as soon as possible for the best results. Working with a physical therapist allows patients to gradually regain control of their limbs following weakness or paralysis. It also reduces risks associated with immobility experienced by many patients with GBS — such as nerve compression, skin ulceration, sensory loss, and contractures.
A trained therapist can guide the patient to carefully assume certain body positions, to use appropriate bracing, and to maneuver through frequent position changes. If a patient is dealing with symptoms like difficulty with eye closure, facial weakness or trouble swallowing, then exercises will be done to help regain control over these movements. Other precautions might also be used, such as adding artificial tears, lubricants, eyelid-taping, or protective eye domes.
2. Natural Pain Relievers
Pain affects between 55 percent to 89 percent of GBS patients, sometimes causing severe distress and immobility. Pain usually goes away after the patient recovers, but for some it can linger for months or years afterwards.
Pain treatment depends on the presence and severity of symptoms.
If pain is mild or moderate, natural painkillers may help, including:
- Lavender and peppermint essential oil. Try placing a few drops of peppermint or lavender oil into your hands and then rubbing the blend on your forehead, temples, back of your neck, lower back, or other achy areas. You can also dilute a few drops by mixing the essential oils with almond, grapeseed or coconut oil. The peppermint-lavender combo also teams up to reduce muscle pain. This handy homemade muscle rub recipe also helps alleviate sore muscles.
- Epsom salt. Soaking in a bath with epsom salt and warm water can help relax tense, painful muscles.
- Gentle stretching, yoga or myofascial release. As long as it’s not very painful to stretch sore muscles, try a foam roller and gentle movement to massage tight areas and improve circulation.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture works by stimulating trigger points to reduce pain or disability.
3. Treating GI Issues Including Constipation & Weight Loss
Constipation, changes in stool frequency or appearance, bloating, stomach pains and other GI issues can be caused by GBS. Depending on how severe someone’s symptoms are, they may need to be treated with gastric decompression, motility agents, and possibly parental nutrition (intravenous feeding, a method used to get nutrition into a patient’s veins).
Some ways you can help support your digestive system during recovery include:
- Avoiding medications that make constipation worse, including opiate medications.
- Drinking plenty of water and fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Using natural laxatives if constipation is an issue, such as: flax seeds and chia seeds, psyllium husk, castor oil packs, prunes and dates, aloe vera, leafy green veggies, coconut water and probiotic foods (like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and probiotic yogurt).
If rapid weight loss starts to occur due to loss of appetite or other complications like abdominal pain, then steps should be taken to prevent malnutrition. Inadequate nutrition is associated with increased risk for fluid and electrolyte abnormalities, ulcers, and infections. Nutritional support should begin as quickly as possible. It’s recommended that patients dealing with weight loss try to eat a high-protein diet and an additional 30 percent of the normal amount of calories they consume until weight stabilizes (for example, 2,600 calories instead of 2,000 in order to promote weight gain).
High-risk patients will also need to be closely monitored to check hydration status, weight, vital proteins, and nitrogen balance. All of these can occur if GI symptoms are severe and a patient’s nutritional status is compromised.
4. Managing Blood Clots, Blood Pressure Changes & Other Cardiovascular Symptoms
The goal of natural methods for managing GBS-related symptoms like irregular heartbeats, blood pressure changes and blood clots is to support overall heart health and prevent complications, such as a heart attack. In GBS patients who are at the highest risk for complications, treatment in the ICU will usually be necessary. These patients will need to be closely monitored for signs of cardiac complications, including sepsis, pulmonary embolism, or heart failure.
For those with mild or moderate GBS, natural ways to manage symptoms, avoid triggers and prevent complications can include:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet. This includes plenty of vegetables and fruits, clean proteins, and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado. Be sure to focus on eating healing foods, which include dark leafy greens, colorful vegetables (like yellow squash, red bell peppers and purple eggplant), fruits, legumes, whole grains (like oatmeal and brown rice) and omega-3 foods (like wild-caught salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds and grass-fed beef).
- Inflammatory, processed foods — such as those containing added sugar, lots of sodium, refined grains, and processed vegetable oils — should be limited or avoided.
- Avoiding energy drinks, caffeine and alcohol.
- Avoiding taking certain medicines (speak to your doctor about this), smoking or using tobacco, and recreational drugs. Some medications can increase your risk for blood clots, such as hormone replacement drugs (usually used by menopausal or postmenopausal women), birth control pills, and medications taken to control blood pressure.
- Managing stress and anxiety, such as with meditation, napping/resting, prayer, light exercise or movement, acupuncture, massage, using essential oils such as lavender or helichrysum, reading or spending time in nature.
- Taking breaks regularly when you’ve been sitting for an extended period of time. Try to move around and stretch throughout the day to keep your limbs from stiffening.
- Taking beneficial dietary supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, garlic and a multivitamin (it’s best to get your doctor’s advice about supplements, especially if you’re taking other medications).
If you suspect you might have Guillain-Barre syndrome, always visit your doctor right away, or the emergency room if symptoms become severe. The sooner you treat the disorder the better, so don’t wait for symptoms to get worse. Symptoms to look out for include: tingling and numbness that spreads, unexplained weakness that spreads, trouble breathing, and the feeling that you’re choking.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome (or GBS) is an inflammatory disorder in which someone’s immune system attacks their nerves.
- GBS symptoms include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, fatigue, pain, and GI issues. If the condition is severe, a patient is at risk for complications like pulmonary embolism and heart failure.
- Can you recover from GBS? Yes, about 50–90 percent of people with GBS fully recover and don’t deal with any long-term impairments or complications.
- How long will it take to recover from GBS? Most people have steady symptoms for about two to four weeks, then take several months to fully recover. Some people with severe GBS may need longer to fully feel better, sometimes many months or even years.
- GBS is usually conventionally treated with intravenous immunoglobulin (administering healthy antibodies), plasmapheresis to help cleanse the blood, physical therapy, pain management and nutritional support.
4 Natural Ways to Support Guillain-Barre Syndrome Recovery
- Physical therapy/movement
- Natural pain killers for mild-to-moderate pain, including lavender and peppermint essential oils and acupuncture
- Treating constipation and GI issues
- Supporting heart health to prevent complications