Without thought or effort, we all smile and laugh at jokes, blink our eyes regularly and taste food with every bite. None of us even contemplate not being able to do facial functions as simple as these. But for those battling Bell’s Palsy, it can be a frightening onset and realization of just how vital these functions are to us in everyday life. Where Bell’s Palsy isn’t usually permanent, it can feel as if it is never ending to those living with it. The purpose of this article is to educate readers on the symptoms, causes, and treatments for Bell’s Palsy and to provide resources to those looking for more information.
Understanding Bell’s Palsy and how is it caused
Bell’s Palsy is a condition in which one’s 7th cranial nerve (aka facial nerve) suffers damage or trauma, resulting in muscle weakness or paralysis. The facial nerve is connected to the muscles on one side of the face that control facial expressions, as well as blinking and closing your eye. Additionally, this nerve is responsible for sending signals to the tear duct, saliva glands, and the ear. In most cases, only one side of the face is affected and will only last for a temporary period of time.
Researchers believe the main cause of Bell’s Palsy is a viral infection such as meningitis, the herpes virus, Epstein-Barr and more. However, other cases have been linked to flu-like illnesses, chronic ear infections, diabetes, Lyme disease and severe trauma to the skull or face. People with diabetes or upper respiratory conditions are at a higher risk at developing the disease. Aside from these preexisting conditions, neither age (typically 15-60) or gender plays a factor.
Recognizing the symptoms and taking action
Considering the many functions of the facial nerve, Bell’s Palsy can lead to many symptoms and problems. Luckily most of the symptoms are painless but unfortunately, are visually detectable and not to be taken lightly. The prominent symptoms are muscle spasms, weakness, or paralysis to one side or in extreme cases, both sides of the face. Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, difficulty making facial expressions (ex. closing eye or smiling), headache/earache, increased sensitivity to light and sound, decreased sense of taste, and increase/decrease to tear and saliva output.
Though these symptoms may only cause slight discomfort or make one self-conscious about their appearance, proper precautions should be taken. For instance, with the inability to blink or close an eye, the eye will dry out and be unable to cleanse itself of germs or bacteria. Without proper care, an infection or damage to the eye can occur, potentially leading to vision loss. Covering the eye and keeping it from drying out are highly recommended to ensure there is no permanent damage.
Treatment of Bell’s Palsy differs depending on the severity of each case. Mild cases do not require treatment and symptoms will subside on their own over a brief period of time. However, for more extensive cases, medication is the most common form of treatment. Prednisone, a steroid used to help ease inflammation has been studied and shown to be the most effective drug for treatment. While the medication is running its course, eye protections becomes the next focus. As previously stated, keeping the eye protected and moist, especially at night are key factors to a full recovery. Lubricating eye drops and eye patches are both effective ways to keep your eye safe and well.
While medication is the primary source of treatment, other therapies also hold potential for small improvements to facial functions and relieving pain. These include physical therapy, acupuncture, and facial massages. It is always recommended to discuss treatment options and seeking additional help with your primary physician.
Current research and additional resources
Currently, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are responsible for conducting and supporting research on brain and nervous system disorders, including Bell’s Palsy. Their goal is to understand how the nervous system works and what causes problems to occur. One focus of the research is on learning the different circumstances that lead to nerve damage and the conditions that cause injuries or damage to nerves. For more information on studies and current research, please visit the NINDS website and view their Clinical Trial Studies. Lastly, for more information and resources you can view the Rare Disease Database by the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
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