Neurologists should be able to anticipate and recognise the onset of respiratory failure in patients with neuromuscular disorders. Symptoms will differ depending on the speed of onset of the respiratory muscle weakness. Careful monitoring of respiratory function is particularly important in acute disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. Patients with an unrecognised neuromuscular disorder may occasionally present with respiratory failure. Important investigations include vital capacity, mouth pressures, arterial blood gases, chest x ray and sometimes overnight respiratory monitoring. Patients with Guillain-Barré and other acute conditions may require short-term ventilatory support in the intensive care unit. Patients with some chronic disorders, such as motor neuron disease and Duchenne dystrophy, can be successfully treated with non-invasive ventilation, usually in collaboration with a respiratory physician. New-onset weakness of limb and respiratory muscles in the intensive care unit is usually due to critical illness myopathy or critical illness polyneuropathy, and treatment is supportive.
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