Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and, in more severe cases, paralysis. It is not known what causes the illness, but new research suggests that having a surgical procedure may play a role.

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In rare cases, having a surgery may increase the risk of GBS, suggests new study.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an illness where the body’s own immune system damages some nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in the United States, approximately 3,000-6,000 people are affected by GBS every year.

The disease is highly uncommon and most people fully recover from it, although, in some rare cases, GBS can be fatal.

The reasons why GBS affects some people but not others, as well as the actual causing agent, remain unknown. The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) note that occasionally, the syndrome will be triggered by surgery.

New research, however, suggests the incidence of GBS amongst patients who had recent surgery may be higher than previously thought.

A team of researchers, led by Dr. Sara Hocker of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, examined clinical associations and potential triggers of GBS within the first 8 weeks after receiving a surgical procedure.

Researchers looked at the medical records of all patients treated for GBS at the Mayo Clinic over 2 decades, between January 1995 and June 2014.

The study looked at 208 patients with GBS who were an average age of 55 years.

Most of the surgeries undergone by the patients were gastrointestinal, cardiac, or orthopedic. Doctors used general anesthesia in 58 percent of the cases, and conscious sedation in the rest of the surgeries.

The results were published in Neurology Clinical Practice.

“The results of our study were surprising,” says Dr. Hocker.

Researchers found that 15 percent of those who developed GBS had undergone a surgical procedure within 2 months before developing the disease.

Of the 208 patients with GBS, 31 people had developed the disease within 8 weeks of having surgery.

The average age of those who developed post-surgical GBS was 63 years, and 65 percent of them were male.

We did not expect to see a higher percentage of patients who developed the syndrome after having surgery. In addition, our research found that having cancer or autoimmune disease may predispose a person to developing Guillain-Barré syndrome after surgery.”

Dr. Sara Hocker

People who had cancer within 6 months prior to developing the disease were seven times more likely to develop GBS after surgery than those who did not have cancer.

People with autoimmune disorders also had a higher chance of developing GBS. Patients with ulcerative colitis or type 1 diabetes were five times more likely to develop GBS after surgery than those with no autoimmune diseases.

Of the 31 people who developed post-surgical GBS, 19 (61 percent) had an associated malignancy and nine patients (29 percent) had autoimmune conditions.

Dr. Hocker emphasizes the safety of having surgical procedures and the rare incidence of post-surgery GBS.

“It’s very important to note that the occurrence of Guillain-Barré syndrome is extremely rare after surgery,” she says.

“Tens of thousands of people had surgery during the study period, and only a very small number of them developed Guillain-Barré. Still, we found that patients with cancer or autoimmune disease may be more susceptible. More research needs to be done.”

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