Respiratory failure is a common and potentially life threatening complication in patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome. The incidence of phrenic nerve involvement and the predictive value of phrenic nerve conduction and diaphragmatic needle EMG were studied in 40 patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome within the first three days of admission to hospital. The negative peak onset latency of the diaphragmatic compound muscle action potential (CMAP), and its amplitude, duration, and area were abnormal in 83%. The need for ventilation was correlated with diaphragmatic CMAP amplitude (P = 0.005), and area (P = 0.001), but not with latency or duration. Abnormalities in diaphragmatic needle EMG were found in 45%, mainly a decreased number of motor unit potentials. The abnormalities correlated with the need for ventilation (P = 0.013). Of the 40% who required ventilation, all had either abnormal phrenic conduction, abnormal diaphragmatic needle EMG, or both. Eighty one per cent of the ventilated patients had abnormal forced vital capacity on the day of the electrophysiological examination. The results indicate that phrenic nerve conduction studies and diaphragmatic EMG are useful in detecting respiratory involvement in patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome and in identifying those at risk of respiratory failure.
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