Bell's Palsy Information, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Bell's palsy is a condition that is characterized by partial weakness or paralysis of facial muscles due to damaged facial nerves, usually causing the affected side to droop. This paralysis/weakness occurs unilaterally (on one side of the face), causing a plethora of unpleasant symptoms.
Bell's Palsy Causes
Contrary to popular misconception, Bell's palsy is not caused by a stroke, and although strokes can cause facial paralysis, there is no established link between Bell's palsy and strokes. Unfortunately, the exact cause of Bell's palsy is not yet completely understood within the medical community, however some studies have drawn correlations between Bell's palsy and the herpes simplex virus. It has also been shown that Bell's palsy is typically accompanied by inflammation, so the general consensus is that inflammation compresses or damages the nerve that controls the facial muscles on the affected side of the face.
Bell's Palsy Symptoms
The symptoms of Bell's palsy appear suddenly, with patients often waking up to a paralyzed or weak sensation in the face, despite having no symptoms the night before. The main symptom is a sudden week feeling or complete paralysis on one side of the face, usually causing it to droop. The droopy side of your face may also feel numb, and strangely enough some people with Bell's palsy experience a pain in or behind their ear. Because the damaged or compressed nerve that is causing your Bell's palsy symptoms also mediates mental function related to tear production, taste, and hearing, it's possible to notice a decreased ability to taste, increased auditory sensitivity, and even excessively dry or teary eyes.
Bell's Palsy Diagnosis
Physicians usually diagnose Bell's palsy by asking questions about the development of a patient's symptoms, followed by a neurological and physical exam to investigate your facial nerve function. Your doctor may ask you to attempt to flex certain muscles in your face and blink your eyes to determine how severe your Bell's palsy symptoms are. In some cases, an MRI, CT scan, or blood tests may be requested if the physician suspects that the cause of your symptoms could be attributed to a more serious condition other than Bell's palsy (i.e. such as the aftermath of a stroke). The physical exam used to diagnose Bell's palsy is very similar to that used to diagnose a stroke victim, as doctors are primarily concerned with ruling out the possibility of a stroke.
Bell's Palsy Treatment
In most cases Bell's palsy patients do not require any form of treatment. However, if your physician suspects that the Bell's palsy is being caused by inflammation, anti-inflammatory corticosteroids (like prednisone) may be prescribed to decrease some of the pressure being placed on the facial nerve. Since a link has been established between herpes and Bell's palsy, some doctors may prescribe an antiviral drug if they suspect a virus is causing your Bell's palsy. Nonetheless, this type of treatment is relatively uncommon and is disputed because no studies have shown that antiviral drugs are actually an effective treatment for Bell's palsy.
There are some things you can do to reduce the effect of Bell's palsy symptoms while you're experiencing facial paralysis or weakness. If you're having trouble blinking or closing your eye, using eyedrops and periodically closing your eyelid throughout the day will prevent an annoying case of dry eye. You may also want to use a sleeping patch to cover your eyes at night, and wear glasses during the day. If you're having trouble producing saliva on one side of your mouth, try to eat softer foods, chew your food thoroughly with the "good" side of your mouth, and practice proper dental hygiene.
Bell's Palsy Prognosis
Fortunately, most Bell's palsy sufferers make a complete recovery without any type of treatment in just a few weeks to two months. People whose Bell's palsy did not cause complete facial muscle paralysis typically recover quicker. Unfortunately, a small percentage of people afflicted with Bell's palsy experience long-lasting symptoms due to the condition, including a permanent feeling of weakness or problems controlling certain muscles on the affected side of their face. Performing exercises that tighten and relax the facial muscles can help you recover faster, and some types of facial massages have also been shown to be beneficial in the recovery process.