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What are the Differences Between Multiple Sclerosis and Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

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Multiple sclerosis and Guillain-Barré are two demyelinating conditions that affect the nervous system. Patients with either of these conditions have a loss of myelin, which covers the axons of the neurons. Both are autoimmune disorders, meaning the immune system attacks the body, resulting in inflammation. Guillain-Barré is a rare neurological condition: the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) noted that one in 100,000 people have the disorder. About 400,000 people in the United States have multiple sclerosis, according to the Merck Manual Home Edition.

While both of these conditions affect the myelin sheath, they affect different types of myelin. Multiple sclerosis is a demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. Guillain-Barré is a demyelinating disease of the peripheral nervous system, which are the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. The cells that make up the myelin in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system are different: CNS myelin is from oligodendroglia and PNS myelin is from Schwann cells.

The demyelination in Guillain-Barré has a rapid onset, occurring within hours or days. Patients can have muscle weakness or paralysis that may become worse in a 24 to 72 hour time frame, noted MedlinePlus. With severe symptoms, patients need to be hospitalized and may require artificial breathing support. Examples of emergency symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome include difficulty breathing, fainting, problems swallowing, drooling and temporary cessation of breathing. The Merck Manual Home Edition noted that “multiple sclerosis may progress and regress unpredictably.” For example, patients who have primary progressive pattern of multiple sclerosis have a gradual progression of the disease without periods of relapse or remission; however, patients with primary progressive pattern of multiple sclerosis may have temporary plateaus in which the disease does not get any worse. Patients have symptoms during episodes, which can last for days to months. When patients are not having episodes, they experience periods in which they have reduced symptoms or an absence of symptoms. The symptoms that a patient with multiple sclerosis experienced depends on the nerve fibers affected by the demyelination. For example, if the sensory nerve fibers become affected, patients can have numbness and tingling.

No cure exists for either Guillain-Barré syndrome or multiple sclerosis. Treatment for Guillain-Barré syndrome include removing the antibodies that attack the nerve cells, which can be done with plasmapheresis or immunoglobin therapy. Multiple sclerosis patients may take medications that slow the progression of the disorder, such as interferons. The NINDS pointed out that Guillain-Barré syndrome can be devastating for patients as the symptoms have a sudden onset; around 30 percent of patients have residual weakness three years post onset and around 3 percent have a muscle weakness relapse. While multiple sclerosis is a chronic disorder, MedlinePlus noted that life expectancy can be either normal or almost normal. Patients can suffer from varying degrees of disability, which depend on the frequency of the attacks and their severity, as well as the region of the CNS affected by the demyelination.


Merck Manual Home Edition: Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

NINDS: Guillain-Barré Syndrome Fact Sheet

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Guillain-Barré Syndrome

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Multiple Sclerosis

Dartmouth Medical School: Demyelinating Diseases of the Nervous System

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EmpowHER Guest

Last May, after a month of battling bronchitis then pneumonia, I was still weak and though my lungs were clear, I started having trouble breathing and numbness in my hands and feet, then my legs stopped working. My back hurt so badly I couldn't sleep. After several trips to ER and a few misdiagnosis (including hyperventilation, and being told to 'breathe into a bag'! ), I found a good doctor who told me it could be MS or GBS. and that I needed to get a lumbar puncture. I went to ICU and was immediately given the IVIg treatment, which was very effective for me. Within a week, I was transferred to inpatient rehab, and went from wheelchair, to walker, to cane and left the hospital pretty much back to normal. It's been 8 months now, and other than occasional tingling in my right hand, I'm back to my old self, only slightly reduced endurance when I go hiking. I am extremely grateful for both my regular doctor, the hospital staff and now my homeopathic doctor, who is helping me to build up my immune system again.

January 27, 2016 - 6:53pm
EmpowHER Guest

This is a very good article, but have to correct just one thing. There is a cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome . My son was three years old when he was diagnosis with it. The syndrome affected his ability to walk and was quickly speeding it's way to his lungs. Plasmapheresis was the method of treatment and a few days after it, my son was back to normal. The doctors were amazed how he bounced back quickly with no physical therapy needed. Since my son was the youngest patient with Guillain-Barré , the hospital documented the case (1993 timeframe) and it can be found at the Children's 'Hospital in New Orleans. My son is now 22 years old. He is strong and healthy. Plasmapheresis was the cure for my son.

June 7, 2014 - 5:16pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I too was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre so I know what it can be like, but I'm sorry to tell you, but that is NOT a cure. That is simply a treatment to help the body's immune system to correct itself. Guillain-Barre is a SYNDROME. I.e., a collection of symptoms that were given a name. Once your body's immune system stops attacking and destroying the myelin sheath of the peripheral nerves and your nerves regenerate as best they can, you NO LONGER have Guillain-Barre. It is not a disease that you carry around with you for the rest of your life. Think of it like some viral infections. You can catch a virus. You can take a treatment to help your body kill the virus quicker. Eventually your body will kill the virus. You could possibly have permanent damage from the infection. BUT nothing that you have done for this particular infection will keep you from catching another virus at a later time. It's the same with Guillain-Barre, there is nothing that can be done to prevent a persons immune system from backfiring and attacking its own peripheral nerve myelin sheath.

I hope your son continues to stay healthy, but please know that the Plasmapheresis was only a treatment that helped his body's immune system to stop attacking the myelin quick enough before it caused permanent damage or death.

I too made a 100% recovery after about 4 months but I had no treatments whatsoever. Again just like some viral infections, the treatments must be started early enough into the attack to be of any benefit whatsoever. I was brought into the hospital well into my first week of symptoms and was there for a total of 4 weeks. I was only given saline fluids and nothing else. In essence, my treatment was a "watch and wait". I suppose based on your post that doing nothing is also a cure for Guillain-Barre? That's not sarcasm, just playing devil's advocate to show that your line of thinking is flawed. The cure here is merely the body's ability to heal itself given enough time.

December 20, 2014 - 12:42pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I too have Guillian Barre Snydrom, I went to hospital at the time I thought I was having a stroke, I could not walk very well, I had fell serveral times in the days before, my feet and hands were numb, and tingling, I was using a walker, but thought it was connected somehow with a herrinated disk in my neck and a slipped disk in my back, until I presented as a stroke, they did not know what was wrong with me at the time I went to hospital , after every test in the book, they finally got with a Nero Surgen and he told them to do a spinal tap and that's how they found it, I was in so much pain, nothing they gave me would take the pain completely away, the next day was when they came in to tell me, it affected everything accept my lungs, thank God, I was either in so much pain or so out of it I didn,t know if I was coming or going, but with a Nums Blessing they figured it out, and I walked in two weeks after I started rehab, they called me there Christmas miracle , because they said they had never seen anyone to go from being totally not being able to stand or use my legs , to be walking with a walker and then a cane just does not happen, that was a year and a half ago and I still take 3200 mg of Nerroten a day to function I have short term memory loss, Dr. Tells me that that will go away when I get off of some meds! But Dr. Did say 5 years down the road I will recover, (BUT I WILL ALWAYS HAVE GBS), this Snydrom has knocked my socks off, I would not wish it on anyone.

May 14, 2015 - 8:54pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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