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Early detection of both multiple sclerosis and Guillain-Barré syndrome are crucial in reducing the significance of permanent and irreversible damage to the nervous system, as well as treating the disease.

Any condition that causes damage to the nervous system can be frightening, and some, like multiple sclerosis, are lifelong diseases that can be treated but not cured. The effect MS has on the nerves can be slowed, but it cannot be stopped, making the disease both progressive and degenerative. It, however, is not the only disease potentially damaging to the nerves.

In some ways, an onset of Guillain-Barré syndrome looks exactly like multiple sclerosis, with symptoms and amount of time it takes to notice those symptoms being very similar. But when comparing the two, there are a number of critical differences that make it essential for a patient to get a true diagnosis so treatment can begin.

What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

Once thought to be a single disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome represents a group of rare disorders in which the body has an autoimmune response to the nervous system. Typically occurring a few days or up to four weeks after a particular type of infection, this disorder leads to the damage and destruction of the protective coating (myelin) on the peripheral nerves that also helps speed signals along. With this damage or removal, nerves cease to function properly and sometimes die.

There is no cure for Guillain-Barré, and the exact cause of the syndrome is unknown. There are three main types of GBS, with acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP) being the most common. MFS (Miller Fisher Syndrome) accounts for only five percent of patients and is most common in Asia, while AMAN and AMSAN (acute motor axonal neuropathy and acute motor-sensory axonal neuropathy respectively) are extremely rare and found mainly in China, Japan, and Mexico.

GBS and MS: Symptoms and similarities

Many of the symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome mimic multiple sclerosis, mainly because both diseases originate as an autoimmune reaction that attacks the nervous system and causes demyelination, or the destruction and removal of myelin. That means both of them affect the overall functionality of the nerves and nervous system.

Some common symptoms between the two include:

  • Tingling and numbness of the extremities
  • Weakness, mainly in the legs but potentially spreading into other areas of the body
  • An unsteady gait and difficulty walking or climbing stairs
  • Extreme pain or aching of the muscles
  • Problems with bladder control or bowel functionality
  • Changes to vision, blurred vision, and potential blindness
  • Trouble speaking and swallowing
  • Extreme fatigue, which lasts even when other symptoms fade

Some risk factors are also similar. For example, both diseases could be related to genetics, with a predisposition to them should a member of the immediate family already suffer from them. Also, certain types of infections can make an individual more prone to developing both conditions. However, the overall prognosis, as well as the various risk factors and treatments, are very different between Guillain-Barré and multiple sclerosis.

How GBS and MS differ

Though both disorders stem from an autoimmune attack on the nervous system, the area of the nerves affected is different. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system targets the central nervous system, or CNS, which is the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. By contrast, Guillain-Barré attacks the peripheral nervous system, or those nerves outside the CNS that are located in other areas of the body and communicate with the CNS.

Other differences include:

  • Onset of Guillain-Barré usually occurs within a day or two, with symptoms progressing rapidly. The initial episode of symptoms in multiple sclerosis may take several days to culminate in a notable difference.
  • While certain infections may be behind the development of both conditions, there is a pattern difference. In Guillain-Barré, the condition typically arises shortly after suffering one of the following infections, which may alter the cells in the nerves and cause the autoimmune response:
    • Campylobacter (a bacteria found in poultry that is improperly cooked)
    • The flu
    • Cytomegalovirus (a herpes strain)
    • Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis or similar, such as chickenpox)
    • Zika virus
    • Hepatitis A, B, C, or E
    • HIV or AIDS
    • Certain types of pneumonia

In some cases, it may also be due to surgery or a recent vaccination. By contrast, MS is perhaps related to an underlying condition such as exposure to Epstein-Barr or the existence of another autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or thyroid disease.

  • While neither disease has a cure, most patients experiencing Guillain-Barré will have a full recovery, with a potential for some minimal residual effects in the future, such as random tingling in the extremities. On the other hand, patients with MS will have continual relapses of symptoms, which will eventually worsen and be constant during progression of the disease.
  • GBS often leads to paralysis (although temporary), while this is not a typical symptom of MS until extremely advanced stages.
  • Treatment for GBS typically involves hospitalization in order to perform a plasma exchange, in which the white and red blood cells are separated from the liquid part of the blood. The red and white blood cells are reintroduced into the body with donor plasma or a substitute, which means that the antibodies and attacking the nerves are removed with the liquid part of the blood. For MS, treatments include anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressant, and chemotherapy options, as well as some pain management.

Risk factors for Guillain-Barré differ from multiple sclerosis as well. While women are three times as likely as men to develop MS, GBS is far more common among men. Patients with a vitamin D deficiency seem to be more likely to develop MS as well, while this doesn’t seem to weigh into the potential for GBS. More people suffer from multiple sclerosis than GBS, with about one in 100,000 developing GBS, while approximately one in four hundred are estimated to have MS.


Early detection of both multiple sclerosis and Guillain-Barré syndrome are crucial in reducing the significance of permanent and irreversible damage to the nervous system, as well as treating the disease. Since neither has a cure, getting treatment for someone with Guillain-Barré to avoid peripheral nerve damage is crucial, while early treatment for MS can actually slow the progression of the disease significantly. Consulting a physician with any of the symptoms related to these conditions could offer a patient a far happier and higher quality life.

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