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Bell's palsy is a condition of cranial nerve dysfunction that occurs when the immune system overreacts to a bacterial or viral infection. In just a week to 10 days, the whole life of a sufferer with Bell's palsy can be turned upside down.

Bell's Palsy: A One-Sided Condition

Bell's palsy starts with intense facial pain. People who have the disease often compare it to a migraine, only affecting just one side of the face. The pain usually starts just behind or just in front of one ear. Then, when the pain subsides, the face feels stiff or pulled to one side.

This sudden partial paralysis of the face makes it easy to frown and hard to smile. The facial muscles can scrunch together when the eyes are closed. One side of the face droops, and it is hard to close the affected eye. There is reduced sensitivity to taste with increased sensitivity to sound, but only on one side of the face. There can be drooling, difficulty eating and drinking, and "crocodile tears," crying when laughing or talking rather than in response to sadness.

It is much more common for Bell's palsy to affect the right side of the face than it is for it to affect the left side of the face. In about 1 in 100 cases, the palsy affects both left and right sides of the face. When both sides of the face are affected, other neurological conditions have to be ruled out, especially Ramsey-Hunt syndrome.

Paralysis of a Single Cranial Nerve

The first physician to diagnoses Bell's palsy was the Scottish neurologist Charles Bell, who wrote about the problem in 1828. This frequently misdiagnosed condition results from damage or inflammation of a single nerve controlling facial expressions, cranial nerve VII.

This is the nerve that enables the corners of the mouth to rise to make a smile and the eyelids to close, on the side of the face it enervates. This nerve also controls production of saliva and tears on one side of the face, as well as the sense of smell and taste. In Bell's palsy, one side of the forehead may wrinkle but the other side of the forehead, controlled by the affected nerve, may be smooth.

A Trigger for Bell's Palsy

Time and time again, people who develop Bell's palsy remember being exposed to a cold draft just before the first symptoms. It is also typical for symptoms to occur the day after a storm. Weather, oddly enough, is just about the only common factor for the disease.

About 1 in 1,000 people develops Bell's palsy in any given year. It's most common in people who have Lyme disease, pregnant women in their third trimester, and people over 60, but it can happen to anyone at anytime. People who have the disease may have to wear an eye patch for a few months up to a year, as did the character actor Jamey Sheridan on the dramatic series Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Although the changes in appearance Bell's palsy causes are always distressing, they always eventually go away.

Natural Healing for Bell's Palsy

Doctors typically treat Bell's palsy with steroids. Until recently, antiviral drugs were also given, but clinical studies have consistently failed to find any benefit in taking them. The benefits of steroid drugs typically only last about 5 days.

A treatment that works for Bell's palsy, however, is vitamin B12. Malaysian researchers found giving vitamin B12 injections accelerates the time to healing, sometimes dramatically. When vitamin B12 was given with steroid drugs, patients recovered 1 to 3 weeks faster, almost always within six months. When vitamin B12 was given by itself, the average time to complete healing was just two weeks total. The research showed that steroids hurt, but vitamin B12 helps.

The drawback to using vitamin B12 as a treatment for Bell's palsy is that it has to be given by injection to get enough of the vitamin into the bloodstream to help the nerve recover. Taking vitamin B12 capsules simply won't work. Even at 1,000 times the RDI, however, vitamin B12 is non-toxic.

Other Ways to Cope with Bell's Palsy

Doctors often don't have time to tell their patients everything they need to know in order to be able to cope with the disease. Here are some helpful hints for living better while you are getting over the disease.

  • Problems focusing, or stinging or burning eyes, are usually caused by dry eye. This is a common complication of Bell's palsy, but not because the ear is not producing tears. In Bell's palsy, the problem is that the affected eye does not blink often enough to spread the tears across the eye. Just close your eye and gently rub your eyelid with the back of your finger. Doing this a few times an hour will make a big difference in how your eyes feel. Just be sure that your hands are clean so that you do not transfer any kind of infection to your eyes.
  • Do not wear a contact lens in a dry eye. Damage to your cornea may result.
  • If you have trouble closing your eye, especially at night, consider wearing a pirate's patch.
  • Facial massage, followed by wrapping your face in a warm moist towel, helps relieves symptoms, but it is not something you should try during the first few days to the first two weeks, when pain is most acute.
  • Do not chew gum, because this exercises the wrong muscles.
  • You can visualize healing of Bell's palsy. Try these simple exercises in your mind or, if the pain is bearable, actually do them. Flare your nostrils. Wrinkle your nose. Smile without your teeth showing, and then with your teeth showing. Stick out your chin. Even thinking about facial motion keeps the nerve pathways alive so you can resume normal facial motions later.

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