What Is Bell’s Palsy?

Bell’s palsy affects the seventh cranial nerve responsible for facial muscles. The condition temporarily weakens or paralyzes the nerve, causing one side of the face to become droopy or stiff. Patients with Bell’s Palsy often have trouble closing the eye, leading to dry eyes. Approximately 40,000 individuals experience Bell’s palsy every year.

No respecter of persons

While Bell’s palsy can affect anyone, the disorder most often appears in patients between 15 and 60 years of age. Both men and women are equally likely to be affected by the condition, although pregnancy can increase the risk. Autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and high blood pressure can also play a role.

Most people will not experience Bell’s palsy a second time if afflicted. Recurrences are most likely to happen within two years of the initial event. The ailment striking a second time can paralyze the same side of the face or the opposite one.

That’s just swell

The exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown, but researchers believe swelling compresses the nerve and restricts function. Inflammation may result from a viral or bacterial infection the body works to fight off. Germs associated most with Bell’s palsy include Lyme disease, herpes simplex, mononucleosis, and shingles.

What are you doing to me?

Bell’s palsy can bring about anything from mild weakness to total paralysis of one side of the face. Being so complex, issues with the seventh cranial nerve can lead to a number of problems from forehead to mouth. Common symptoms associated with Bell’s palsy include:

  • Inability to open or close the eye
  • Pain in the face or ear
  • Headaches
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty eating, drinking, or speaking
  • Loss of sense of taste
  • Ringing in the ear or sensitivity to sound
  • Inability to make facial expressions

Symptoms often appear suddenly and reach peak severity 2 to 3 days after onset.

Give it to me straight, doc

When faced with symptoms, a physical examination is necessary. A doctor can perform a series of tests to determine that Bell’s palsy is the root cause.

Blood tests are often performed to check for viral or bacterial infections causing the disorder to appear. An electromyography (EMG) checks how muscles and nerves function through the use of electrical impulses. An MRI or CT scan can check the face for structural damage brought on by a stroke or tumor.

The road to recovery

In most cases, Bell’s palsy will fade away without treatment. Recovery can take several weeks or months before the face returns completely to normal. When the eye cannot close, the doctor may recommend artificial tear drops or ointments to keep the surface moist. An eye patch may be required during sleep or waking hours to keep the eye safe.

Certain medications may be prescribed by a physician to alleviate symptoms. Antiviral or antibacterial medicines can be used to treat underlying viruses or bacteria. Steroid drugs reduce inflammation in the face to remove discomfort. Physical therapy is known to stimulate nerve function, and heat from a towel helps reduce pain.