Guillain-Barré syndrome and CIDP: A summary of the facts

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare but serious autoimmune neuropathy which affects the peripheral nerves.
  • It causes weakness and loss of sensation.
  • It’s not known what causes GBS, although it often follows a mild infection and could result from the immune cells attacking the nerves in error, rather than fighting the infection.
  • Symptoms include: tingling and numbness in toes and fingers; limp or heavy arms and legs; difficulty gripping things; cramp-like pain; less control over facial muscles when eating or talking; difficulty breathing.
  • Symptoms usually develop quickly over a few days and weakness is at its worst within two to three weeks of starting.
  • Diagnosis can be difficult but can be made from blood tests, a lumbar puncture or electromyogram (EMG). Early diagnosis can improve the prognosis.
  • Most sufferers recover over a period of a few weeks or months, depending on the severity of the disease. Some people suffer fatigue or minor weakness longer term and a small minority are left disabled, possibly wheelchair-dependent.
  • The three most common types of GBS are:
    • Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP)
    • Miller Fisher syndrome (MFS)
    • Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN)
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome can affect anyone, although males are slightly more likely to contract it and the risk gets higher with age.
  • There is currently no cure for GBS but there are two treatments which ease symptoms. These are plasma exchange and Intravenous immunoglobulin (IvIg).
  • Early treatment can shorten the illness, although GBS usually gets better on its own over time.
  • It is very rare to get GBS twice.


  • CIDP is a rare autoimmune condition of the peripheral nervous system like GBS, except that the progression of the illness takes much longer.
  • Initial symptoms of weakness develop in a similar way to GBS but become progressively worse over a period of several months rather than weeks.
  • Early symptoms include: tingling like pins and needles; loss of feeling starting in the fingers and toes; weakness in the arms and legs.
  • CIDP can occur in anyone although it’s most prevalent in people aged in their 50s and 60s. Men are twice as likely as women to get the disease.
  • Risk factors include: diabetes; alcohol dependency; cytostatic drugs; cardiovascular disease.
  • It’s not known what causes CIDP, although it often seems to be triggered by an infection.
  • Variations of CIDP include:
    • Paraproteinaemic demyelinating neuropathy (PDN)
    • Multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN) or MMN with conduction block (MMNCB)
    • Lewis-Sumner syndrome (MADSAM)
  • Diagnosis is difficult as symptoms can be vague and there is no single diagnostic test.
  • CIDP treatment is very effective, although long term treatment is often required. Without treatment, 1 in 3 people with CIDP will need a wheelchair.
  • Some people recover completely from CIDP while others may be left with residual numbness or weakness for the rest of their lives.

More useful info

  • Neither GBS nor CIDP is hereditary or contagious.
  • Physiotherapy and gentle exercise aids recovery for both GBS and CIDP.
  • Your doctor will be able to advise when you can drive again. Although the DVLA won’t need formal sign off from your GP, you must let your insurance company know that you’ve been ill but are now fit to drive again.
  • You can find the answers to lots of questions we’ve been asked on our FAQ page.




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