When Your Child Has Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)
Your child has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This is an illness that affects the nerves. GBS is an autoimmune disorder, meaning the body attacks its own nerves. The job of your nerves is to carry messages of movement and sensation to and from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. With GBS causing problems with the nerves, your child may complain of numbness or paralysis in the arms. legs, or other parts of the body. Though GBS can be serious, especially if it affects the muscles involved in breathing, the illness is usually temporary. Many children recover completely.
What Are the Risk Factors for GBS?
GBS seems to occur more often in children who have had recent infections, such as a virus or a cold. In very rare cases, GBS can occur after your child has had certain vaccinations. The exact cause of GBS is unknown.
What Are the Symptoms of GBS?
With GBS, your child may have muscle aches or weakness that usually starts with the legs and spreads up the body. Symptoms can progress to include paralysis or trouble swallowing or breathing, so prompt evaluation and treatment is needed.
How Is GBS Diagnosed?
Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in neurologic problems or problems with the nervous system. The doctor will examine your child. He or she will also ask about your child’s health history and symptoms. The following may also be done:
Neurologic exam to check how well your child’s nervous system is working. During the exam, the doctor checks your child’s muscle strength, balance, coordination, and reflexes. He or she also checks skills such as memory, vision, hearing, talking, and swallowing.
Spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to check the health of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. During the test, the skin over the lower back is numbed with a local anesthetic. Then a needle is inserted and a sample of the fluid is taken from the spinal canal. The fluid is checked in a lab for signs of infection and inflammation.
Nerve conduction study (NCS) and an electromyogram (EMG) to check nerve and muscle function. NCS is usually done first. During NCS, electrodes (round discs attached to wires) are placed on the skin along the pathways of certain nerves. The electrodes record how quickly the muscles and nerves respond to an electrical stimulus. During an EMG, small needle electrodes are placed in various muscles in the arms or legs. The electrical activity of the muscles is then recorded as your child tightens and rests the muscles.
Blood tests may be done to check for signs of infection.
How Is GBS Treated?
GBS may resolve on its own within a few weeks or longer. However, treatment may help shorten the length of the illness.
If your child receives treatment, hospital care is needed until symptoms improve.
Procedures, such as plasmapheresis, or high-dose intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), may be done. These involve the use of specialized blood products to help the body to fight the abnormal immune reaction.
In addition, your child may receive supportive care to treat symptoms as needed. This can include medication to treat muscle and nerve pain or assistance with eating or breathing until recovery occurs.
Overall treatment time varies for each child. The doctor will discuss other treatment options with you if needed.
What Are the Long-Term Concerns?
Most children recover from GBS with no lasting problems. In rare cases, a child has ongoing muscle or joint pain. If this happens, supportive care, such as physical or occupational therapy, may be prescribed to help with recovery.