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What is Bell's Palsy?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bell's palsy is a common condition in which inflammation or damage to the facial nerve causes muscle paralysis on one side of the face. The disorder tends to come on suddenly, causing half of the face to droop and feel numb to the touch. Most episodes are relatively short-lived, and symptoms may go away on their own within two to three weeks. Doctors usually suggest seeking medical treatment, however, to ease symptoms and promote faster recovery time.

It is often difficult to identify an underlying cause of nerve inflammation, and many cases of Bell's palsy are deemed idiopathic. There is evidence suggesting that certain types of viruses, including herpes simplex and Epstein-Barr, can attack and damage the facial nerve. Diabetes is also known to affect blood vessels and nerves in the face, which can increase the likelihood of developing the condition. In addition, some people appear to be genetically predisposed to nerve problems.

Bell's palsy symptoms usually come about quickly, sometimes within minutes. Either the left or right side of the face starts to feel weak and tingly, and there may be dull pain in the jaw region. Total paralysis can occur in a few hours or days, which makes it impossible to open or close the affected eye and half of the mouth. Other symptoms may include a progressively worsening headache, sound sensitivity, drooling, and increased tear production.

A person who believes he or she may be experiencing Bell's palsy symptoms should seek medical care right away. Several other more serious conditions can also cause facial paralysis, including strokes and cancerous tumors. A doctor can rule out other causes by taking magnetic resonance imaging scans and electroencephalographs to look for physical abnormalities or changes in brain activity. Blood tests may be performed to confirm the presence of a particular virus. After making a diagnosis, the physician can explain different treatment options.

Patients with mild Bell's palsy may simply be instructed to take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and regularly massage their faces to help improve symptoms. A moderate to severe case might require a corticosteroid injection to immediately relieve inflammation and a prescription for antivirals to clear up infection. A patient may also be instructed to use moisturizing eye drops and wear an eye patch at night to avoid irritation. Most people are able to experience full recoveries from their symptoms within one month, though some individuals experience frequently recurring episodes of Bell's palsy.

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Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On Nov 24, 2011

My sister developed Bell’s palsy suddenly. She said that the two worst things about it were not being able to open her mouth fully and not being able to close her eye.

She could only eat small bites of food, since she could not open her mouth very much at all. She ate mostly soft foods and soups.

Her doctor gave her some eye drops to keep her eye from dehydrating. She said it was very tiresome to have to continually put the drops in her eye, and because she couldn’t do it in her sleep, she would awaken with a painfully scratchy eye.

By Perdido — On Nov 23, 2011

The first time I had ever heard of Bell’s palsy was when one of my coworkers got it. She was in her sixties, and I was afraid that it was something permanent.

When I asked her best friend at work about the condition, she told me that it is possible to get over it and never have another episode of it. She said that our friend would likely miss a couple of weeks of work, and would only return once she had regained at least some control over her facial expressions.

When she did come back, I could tell that something was wrong with her face. She had improved a lot, but still, she could only make half a smile, and one eye drooped.

As time went on, her face slowly returned to normal. It has been about a year since it happened, and though there is still a slight downturn at the corners of her lips and the affected eye, she looks so much better.

By seag47 — On Nov 23, 2011

@orangey03 - My little eight-year-old cousin had Bell’s palsy, and it scared her and her mother. They went to the hospital in the middle of the night when she woke up with a droopy face.

Since her mother’s mom had just suffered an actual stroke, this was fresh on her mind, and she thought that it might run in the family. The doctor reassured her that it was only Bell’s palsy and that her daughter should make a full recovery.

The doctor gave her a corticosteroid shot and told her to massage her face several times a day. It took about three weeks, but she did get better.

By orangey03 — On Nov 22, 2011

Imagine how scary it would be to wake up and realize that half of your face is paralyzed. Many people have never heard of Bell’s palsy, so they would automatically assume that they had experienced a stroke during the night.

What’s even scarier is that there’s no way to avoid it. Since no one knows what the exact causes of Bell’s palsy are, no one can take steps to prevent it.

I have heard of children getting Bell’s palsy. I know that would be terrifying to a young person. Has anyone ever known a child who has had it? In children, is it more or less severe than adult cases?

By Izzy78 — On Nov 21, 2011

@TreeMan - Wow, I never would have guessed that someone like George Clooney had Bell's palsy. Obviously, he doesn't have major issues with it, but I am curious if it ever affects filming of different projects.

I think it would be really scary to start noticing these symptoms for the first time. Having parts of your face go numb isn't exactly a normal experience.

Does anyone know the exact differences in symptoms between a stroke and Bell's palsy? I know a stroke affect the entire side of your body, so one of the things I have always heard about strokes is that you have trouble walking. That shouldn't be the case with Bell's palsy. I am sure there are other examples, too.

By TreeMan — On Nov 20, 2011

@cardsfan27 - For the first part of your comment, Bell's palsy is just a facial paralysis that doesn't have a known cause.

I was curious about famous people who have Bell's palsy, and there are a lot of them. Most of them, you would never guess. I would say George Clooney and Piece Brosnan are the two most famous people on the list. I used to watch wrestling when I was younger, and one of the commentators, Jim Ross, was famous for having Bell's palsy. His was much more advanced and noticeable, though.

From what I have read, it seems like Bell's palsy treatment is fairly successful in most cases. If someone starts to notice the symptoms, they can take some corticosteroids, and it often relieves swelling and solves the problem. It does seem odd, though, that they can't figure out a source in the case of Bell's palsy.

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 20, 2011

@titans62 - I would say you are probably right about the outcome being worse if you don't seek treatment as soon as possible. I'm not exactly sure how Bell's palsy differs from just regular palsy, but I know that facial trauma can cause problems. My friend was in a car wreck that damaged the nerves in her face, and she had the problems described in the article. Luckily, she made a recovery and is fine now.

I know I have heard of Bell's palsy before, but I don't know that I have ever heard of anyone famous who has had it. Does anyone know of any examples? How common is it in general?

By titans62 — On Nov 19, 2011

I don't know why, but I was always under the impression that Bell's palsy could be caused by a stroke. I guess maybe that isn't the case, and a stroke just causes you to have similar symptoms.

It sounds like Bell's palsy can have different levels of severity. Is it similar to a stroke in that if you don't get treatment for Bell's palsy as soon as you start to see symptoms, the outcome can be worse?

Besides the things that were mentioned in the article, are there any other Bell's palsy causes that are common? Is there any way to predict whether you are genetically predisposed to getting Bell's palsy?

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