Yesterday on Twitter, Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Travis Frederick revealed that he’s been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome. The 27-year-old NFL player shared a statement detailing a weeks-long “examination and discovery process.” In the previous 48 hours, he wrote, he had undergone two treatments for the condition.
Frederick hasn’t missed a football game in the past five years, according to ESPN, but now he's facing some time off the gridiron. “My doctors have told me that it is not possible to determine a time table for a return to the field right now, but I am hopeful that I will be able to play as soon as possible,” he tweeted.
So what exactly is Guillain-Barré syndrome?
Guillain-Barré syndrome or GBS, occurs when the body mistakenly attacks its own nerves, specifically in the peripheral nervous system, which connects the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. This can result in a wide range of nerve-related symptoms, including tingling, pricking, or pins and needles sensations; muscle weakness; difficulty walking, speaking, chewing, or swallowing; pain; and, in severe cases, paralysis, which can become life-threatening if breathing is affected.
The worst GBS symptoms are likely to emerge within the first few days and up to four weeks after a person notices that something is wrong, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). After that, symptoms usually stabilize, but recovery can progress slowly over a few weeks or even a few years.
Earlier this month, Frederick sought medical care for “stingers” in his neck. “I have been told that the illness was detected at a fairly early stage,” he tweeted. In general, most people don’t seek out medical attention until they’re already experiencing weakness on both sides of their body, according to the NINDS.
As with many autoimmune diseases, experts don’t fully understand what causes GBS, but it’s thought to be triggered by an infection or surgery. Campylobacter infections (a common cause of food poisoning) are thought to be the most common trigger of Guillain-Barré, according to the Mayo Clinic. The flu, Epstein-Barr virus (best known as the cause of mono), and even Zika have also been linked to GBS.
While many autoimmune conditions are more likely to strike women, men are more likely to have GBS, states the Mayo Clinic, although it can affect anyone.
How is Guillain-Barré syndrome treated?
Frederick didn’t disclose details of the treatments he had this week, but Guillain-Barré syndrome is typically treated in two different ways to disrupt nerve damage.
One is plasma exchange. This procedure involves drawing blood, separating out the plasma (the liquid part), then returning the remaining blood cells to the patient. Removing the plasma means also reducing some of the antibodies that may have been contributing to nerve damage, according to the NINDS.
The second is immunoglobulin therapy. Immunoglobulins are proteins made by the immune system. GBS patients can get intravenous injections of immunoglobulins from healthy donors, which can reduce the autoimmune attack on the nerves.
These two treatments are considered to be equally effective, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may also be supplemented with pain medication if a patient is in discomfort, as well as physical therapy to help regain muscle strength.
There is currently no cure for Guillain-Barré, but most people recover within six to 12 months, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, about 30% of people still experience lingering weakness three years after a diagnosis, reports the NINDS, and about 15% continue to have weakness long after that.
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Frederick is staying optimistic. “I am deeply grateful for all of the people who have expressed concern for me throughout the past four weeks,” he wrote in his statement, which has now been liked over 16,000 times on Twitter. “My teammates and the Cowboys organization have provided me and my family with tremendous support.”