Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Sudden Paralysis

Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Sudden Paralysis
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  • 0:07 A Paraytic Stomach Flu
  • 0:42 What Is Guillain-Barre…
  • 1:40 Why Does…
  • 4:14 Clinical Signs,…
  • 5:20 Treatment and…
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
In this lesson, we'll go over one very interesting condition known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. We'll review the odd reason why it may occur, the terrible things it causes, and the really cool ways by which it is treated.

A Paralytic Stomach Flu

Think of the last time you had the cold and the signs and symptoms it led to. You were probably sneezing, coughing, had a fever, and so forth. Eventually, within a week or two, you fully recovered. Likewise, if you've ever had something like the stomach flu, you were probably throwing up, had diarrhea, and felt miserable in general. Just like with the cold, though, you eventually recovered from the stomach flu. Some people aren't as lucky, though. On top of being miserable and sick with the cold or stomach flu, they develop a terrible condition we'll cover in this lesson, one that can lead to paralysis and death.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

The derangement I'm intimating at is known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is a condition where the body's immune system attacks the body's nerve cells, resulting in tingling of the feet and legs, difficulty walking, and even paralysis. Although this problem strikes at virtually any age, individuals over the age of 50 seem to be the ones most at risk.

Another important point to note is that two-thirds of people who come down with GBS seem to do so after they get sick with a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection. Notably, a bacterium called Campylobacter jejuni, which is a cause of the stomach flu, is a risk factor for developing GBS. The way to remember this is to realize that jejuni stands for the jejunum, a section of your intestinal tract, and the fact that this bacterium likes to Camp - ylobacter out in the jejunum to cause you the stomach flu.

Why Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome Occur?

We don't really know the exact nature of why Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs even though we know that infections do predispose people to its development. What we do understand is that this syndrome is an autoimmune disease, a disease where the body's own immune system attacks itself. One theory as to why any autoimmune disease may develop, not just Guillain-Barre syndrome, is as follows.

Your body makes little proteins called antibodies. They fly around inside of you and attach to all sorts of foreign cells, like bacteria. After latching on to these cells, they are targeted for destruction by the rest of your immune system. This is something you want, since pathogenic bacteria are bad for you.

One theory states that the little particles that the antibody attaches to on the bacterium may be similar enough to little particles that are on the surfaces on your own body's cells. That means that the antibodies produced against an infection will not only target the invader but your own body as well. You can compare this development inside of your body to something you can imagine on the outside. If you were to take a little suction cup, a piece of glass, a piece of plastic, and a piece of cardboard, you'd notice the suction cup will stick to the glass and plastic but not the cardboard.

That's because the particles that make up the suction cup, glass, and plastic are similar enough to cause the same end result but aren't similar enough in the case of the cardboard. The way by which your suction cup, like an antibody, cross-reacts or sticks to both the glass and plastic even though they're technically different substances is sort of how antibodies in your body may sometimes stick to a bacterium and your body even though they're seemingly very different.

This may help explain why infectious diseases seem to trigger this condition. But I digress. There's something even more important to know - that is to say, the end result of the antibodies sticking to the wrong thing.

The end result is that your immune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheath, an insulating layer that surrounds a nerve cell's axon, in the peripheral nervous system. Myelin sheaths are also in your central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord, but in this condition only those in the peripheral nervous system, meaning everything outside the brain and spinal cord, are affected.

The myelin sheath is like the layer of insulation around an electrical wire. If you destroy that insulating layer, the wire won't be able to conduct its electrical signal very quickly, if at all. Similarly, if the myelin sheath is destroyed, the nerve cell cannot conduct its electrical signal to places like the muscles of your legs or arms very well at all.

Clinical Signs, Symptoms, and Diagnostics

If your nervous system can't send signals around very well, you get a bunch of signs and symptoms associated with this condition, including:

  • Difficulty walking, breathing, and swallowing
  • Tingling, muscle pain, or numbness
  • Paralysis

… among many other signs, such as low blood pressure, heart palpitations, and so on. One thing to note about this disease in particular is that most of the signs and symptoms I described start at the hands and feet and progress up the arms and up the legs and towards the trunk of the body.

One of the ways this condition is diagnosed shouldn't be all that surprising. Remember, in this condition, the problem lies in the fact that antibodies destroy a nerve's ability to conduct electrical signals. If you can just recall that electric wire example, you won't have to remember that this condition is diagnosed using nerve conduction tests, tests that measure how quickly your nerves carry a signal. In addition to that, a spinal tap, a procedure that takes some fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord, can be used as well in order to rule out something like an infection that may be causing similar signs.

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