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Last Updated: October 19, 2017

Bell's Palsy

Overview

Bell’s palsy is a temporary facial paralysis that affects movements like smiling and blinking, resulting in a droopy effect. It is caused by nerve damage that interrupts the relay of messages from the brain to the face - usually on just one side of the face. This condition was named after the surgeon who first identified it in the 19th century, Sir Charles Bell.

Each year, roughly 40,000 Americans suffer from Bell’s palsy (usually between the age of 15 and 60). Bell’s palsy is not life threatening and most individuals fully recover by six months, although in rare cases symptoms persist for life.

Causes and Risk Factors

Bell’s palsy is caused by inflammation or compression of the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII), which controls the muscles of the face. Infection by a virus is believed to cause swelling and inflammation of the nerve, which in turn restricts the flow of oxygenated blood through the narrow canals (known as the facial or Fallopian canals) holding the nerves on either side of the face near the ears. Numerous viruses from the herpesvirus family are associated with Bell’s palsy.

Bell’s palsy has been associated with the following:

Man with Bell's palsy, and illustration of the facial nerve

Symptoms

Bell’s palsy affects the function of facial muscles, as well as tears, saliva, taste and the middle ear. The condition is often recognized by droopiness on one side of the face, with symptoms that suddenly appear and peak after about one day. The symptoms of Bell’s palsy include:

Diagnosis

Diagnosing Bell’s palsy starts with a medical examination of the face for signs of paralysis. During a typical exam the patient is asked to perform simple tasks like closing the eyes and smiling. Other tests that evaluate the face for nerve damage or trauma may be performed.

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment for Bell’s palsy depends on the severity of the disease and type of symptoms - many recover without medication. Anti-inflammatory drugs and/or antiviral therapies are commonly indicated, although some studies question the effectiveness of this treatment regimen. Symptoms generally begin to diminish within two weeks, with complete recovery by six months.

The best way to prevent Bell’s palsy is by avoiding viral infections and injury to the face. A healthy diet and regular exercise also help prevent other possible risk factors for the disease, such as diabetes.

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD