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Bell's palsy or Bell palsy is a type of one-sided facial paralysis that affects about 30 out of 100,000 people in the United States annually. It usually affects men and women between the ages 20-40 years, and pregnant women and people with diabetes have a higher risk of developing the condition.

Bell's palsy affects the facial nerve, which is responsible for the motor function of the muscles of the face. It causes weakness on one side of the face, resulting in facial drooping, inability to close the eyelid, drying of the eye, headache, pain around the jaw or ear, decreased ability to taste, and increased sensitivity to noise. It rarely affects both sides of the face.

Symptoms usually occur suddenly over 48-72 hours. Facial muscle weakness may be mild to severe, and in some, total paralysis occurs. In most patients (70% - 80%), symptoms improve spontaneously within three weeks. According to experts, complete restoration of facial nerve function is likely when improvement of symptoms occur within three weeks. However, if improvement does not occur by four months, the likelihood of permanent nerve dysfunction is more likely. A few patients do not recover the motor function of the facial nerve, and some also experience impairment in their sense of taste.

What Causes Bell's Palsy?

It is not clear what causes Bell's palsy, but it is believed to be linked to a viral infection. The herpes simplex virus, which causes genital herpes and cold sores, is most commonly believed to be linked to Bell's palsy, but infection with other viruses is also possible. These include the herpes zoster virus, adenovirus, influenza, mumps, rubella, and other viruses.

Treatment of Bell's Palsy

Medical treatment for Bell's palsy remains controversial, because most people recover fully, with or without treatment. Medications used to treat Bell's palsy include corticosteroids, like Prednisone, which are anti-inflammatory agents. They act by reducing facial nerve swelling, but they work best if treatment is started soon after the symptoms start. Antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) or acyclovir (Zovirax) may control viral infection if it is the cause. However, this treatment is offered only for severe facial paralysis.

Aside from medications, physical therapy may be used to prevent permanent contracture of the facial muscles, which shrink when paralyzed. A physical therapist teaches you how to exercise and massage your facial muscles to prevent contractures.

Home treatments for facial palsy may include:

  • Lubricating the affected eye to protect it from drying and being injured. Eye drops and eye glasses may be used during the day, and eye ointment and an eye patch may be used at night.
  • Taking pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help relieve pain.
  • Using moist heat by applying a washcloth on the face to relieve pain.
  • Massaging and doing physical therapy exercises to relax the facial muscles.

Alternative treatments include relaxation techniques to relieve pain and muscle tension, biofeedback training, acupuncture and supplements such as B-vitamins and zinc.

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