Context: Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is the foremost cause of acute, generalized, peripheral neuropathic weakness. Although nerve conduction studies are a diagnostic aid, the characteristic electrical changes may not evolve for several weeks. Early diagnosis of GBS is important, however, because early treatment has been shown to improve outcome.
Objectives: To describe the electrodiagnostic abnormalities detectable in the first week of GBS, to determine if there are early patterns suggestive of GBS, and to identify the percentage of patients whose condition can be diagnosed with reasonable certainty in the first week.
Design and setting: We retrospectively reviewed the medical records of all patients admitted to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio, having the discharge diagnosis GBS during the past 16 years. Patients who underwent nerve conduction studies within 7 days of muscle weakness were selected for this study.
Results: The H reflex was absent in 30 (97%) of 31 patients. Nineteen patients (61%) had low-amplitude or absent sensory nerve action potential (SNAP) in the upper extremity. Fifteen patients (48%) overall, including 21 (67%) of the 31 patients, including 14 (67%) of the 21 patients younger than 60 years, had an abnormal upper extremity SNAP combined with a normal sural SNAP. Other findings included an abnormal F wave (25 patients [84%]), reduced compound muscle action potential amplitude (22 patients [71%]), prolonged distal latency (20 patients [65%]), temporal dispersion (18 patients [58%]), slowed motor conduction velocity (16 patients [52%]), and motor conduction block (4 patients [13%]). Definite diagnosis was possible in 17 patients (55%), but not commonly until the fifth day.
Conclusions: The H reflex is the most sensitive test for early GBS. Upper extremity SNAPs are also frequently abnormal in early GBS. Absent H response, abnormal F wave, and abnormal upper extremity SNAP combined with a normal sural SNAP are characteristic of early GBS. If multiple nerves are tested, definite diagnosis is possible in half the patients, but not until the fifth day after the onset of symptoms.