by Mary Vincent, L.Ac.

Bell’s palsy is one of numerous disorders causing weakness and/or paralysis of the facial muscles, and is estimated to be responsible for at least 80% of cases. It is diagnosed when all other more serious conditions (e.g., stroke) have been ruled out. The exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown, but most scientists believe the inflammation of the facial nerve (7th cranial nerve) is caused by a viral infection.

Bell’s palsy is named for Sir Charles Bell, a 19th century Scottish surgeon who was the first to describe the condition.

When Bell’s palsy occurs, “the function of the facial nerve is disrupted, causing an interruption in the messages the brain sends to the facial muscles” (NIH). This results in facial weakness or paralysis, almost always affecting only one side of the face.

Functions of the nerve include: closing and blinking the eyes; tear production; frowning; raising eyebrows; smiling; salivating; and flaring of the nostrils. The facial nerve also carries sensations to the middle ear and the anterior 2/3 of the tongue.

Symptoms of Bell’s palsy typically come on rapidly. Often a person awakens in the morning with drooping on one side of the face, having gone to bed with no issues the night before. Due to the many functions of the facial nerve, in addition to drooping on one side of the face, signs and symptoms may include:

▪ Inability to raise eyebrow, to wrinkle forehead, or to smile on affected side

▪ Inability to close the eye on affected side
▪ Inability to produce tears in affected eye or continuous tearing
▪ Loss in ability to taste
▪ Pain in and/or behind the ear

With no treatment, most people will begin to show some signs of improvement in function on the affected side of the face within 10 days, and will recover completely after a few months. A small percentage of individuals will have some residual permanent weakness in muscles on the affected side of the face. Recovery time depends on the severity of symptoms patient presents with.

Western medical treatment typically includes an oral steroid, which has been shown to improve recovery time, while antivirals appear to be ineffective. In cases where the eye will not close it is especially important to keep the eye protected, as the inability to make tears puts the cornea at risk of becoming scratched.

Can Acupuncture Help?

Most people aren’t willing to wait out the months to see if their facial muscles will return to normal. Having one side of your face not in full working order not only causes physical discomfort, but is a great source of anxiety for most individuals. There are many studies that demonstrate acupuncture to help improve the rate of recovery time in Bell‘s Palsy. One of the more recent studies shows that acupuncture is particularly effective when strong stimulation of the needle is used on the specific points used for a Bell’s Palsy patient. Of the participants in the study, 94% had fully recovered after 6 months of acupuncture with strong stimulation of needles, while 77% of the patients in the acupuncture group receiving needles inserted and immediately left alone had fully recovered after these 6 months. All of the patients simultaneously took prednisone in addition to the acupuncture.

So what does this mean for your treatment at BCA? Is it going to hurt? In a nutshell, maybe….for a second or so. It means that when we first put the needles in, you will probably feel an ache or a “zing” at the site, which typically dissipates after insertion. Particularly for needles placed on the affected side of the face, this sensation usually provides some immediate relief, as it will quickly relax a lot of the tension in those muscles.

A person should seek treatment as soon as possible after receiving a Bell’s Palsy diagnosis in order to achieve the best and fastest recovery. Here at BCA, we would recommend a series of 10 acupuncture treatments daily to start (or as close together as possible), particularly in more severe cases. It is unlikely that we will give you any herbal formulas to take, as we find people get great results with acupuncture alone. It is, of course, perfectly fine to combine western treatment in addition to the acupuncture you receive. In most cases, individuals begin to feel improvement after the third or fourth session, particularly if the treatments occur in quick succession.

Source: http://bit/ly/XekkvV Canadian Medical Association Journal, online February 25, 2013.