What to know about Bell’s palsy

Once again, actress Angelina Jolie is making headlines but not for starring in a new movie.  This time the critically-acclaimed film star is facing another new issue dealing with her health – Bell’s palsy.  The actress opened up about her condition in a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine putting this rare neurological condition front and center of educating the public about her latest medical diagnosis.

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What is Bell’s palsy?

Bell’s palsy is a condition causing only one side of your face to be weak or paralyzed.  The condition is often confused for a stroke, however, a stroke will also cause muscle weakness in other parts of the body and not just one side of the face.  In individuals with Bell’s palsy, it is where there has been paralysis of the facial nerve, the peripheral nerve responsible for facial movement. 

It is a relatively rare condition affecting around 40,000Americans each year. 

What causes it?

The exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown. What has happened though is some sort of damage or trauma to the seventh cranial nerve or facial nerve.  This nerve passes through a very small area in the skull and if the nerve is damaged it will swell, causing the nerve to push up against the skull. 

Many scientists believe this is a link between Bell’s palsy and viral infections such as influenza, herpes simplex or respiratory tract infections.  People with diabetes are also more suspect to the condition.  Pregnancy is the most well-established risk factor as Bell’s palsy occurs three times more frequently in pregnant women than in the general population, particularly in the third trimester and the first week after delivery.

 Other conditions associated with Bell’s palsy include high blood pressure, immunodeficiency, sarcoidosis, tumors, Lyme disease and trauma such as a skull fracture or facial injury.

What are the symptoms?

Sufferers with it develop one-sided facial weakness that may last a matter of hours to several months.  The effects of it can result in eyebrow sagging, inability to close or blink the eye, excessive tears, drooping of the mouth, drooling, difficulty chewing and tasting food, twitching, sensitivity to loud noises, and pain or numbness behind the ear. 

How is it treated?

Treatment of Bell’s palsy may vary based on the severity of symptoms.  The good news is that this condition has an excellent prognosis and recovery, even if it is not treated.  But, for some individuals, medications and other therapeutic options are necessary.  Common treatments include prednisone, antiviral agents and eye care to prevent corneal drying, abrasion and eye ulcers. 

The main goal of treating Bell’s palsy is to improve functioning of the facial nerve, reduce nerve damage and to protect the eye.  The vast majority of people who experience it will begin to feel better in a few weeks and most will make a full recovery within three months if not much sooner.