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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 peripheral nerves. These nerves are located throughout the body. Their job is to carry messages of movement and sensation to and from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. With GBS, your child may feel weak and achy. He or she may even have numbness or paralysis in the face, chest, or legs. Though GBS can cause serious health problems, the illness is usually temporary. Many children recover completely. Young girl sitting on end of exam table with legs over the side. Her mother is sitting behind her. Healthcare provider is tapping girl's knee with reflex hammer.

What Are the Risk Factors for GBS?

GBS is an autoimmune disorder, meaning the body attacks itself. It 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 cause of GBS is unknown.

What Are the Symptoms of GBS?

With GBS, your child may have muscle aches or weakness that starts with the legs and spreads up the body. If symptoms include paralysis or trouble swallowing or breathing, treatment is needed right away.

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. The doctor examines your child. He or she also asks 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 low back is numbed. 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. However, treatment can 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.

  • 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.

 

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