Last month, singer Carnie Wilson shared with her fans that she was suffering Bell’s palsy, a kind of facial paralysis. This condition normally occurs after a viral infection, when the muscles in the face suddenly weaken. Infections such as influenza B, mumps, Epstein-Barr virus, or coxsackievirus inflame the nerve that controls these muscles. Doctors believe that this causes the nerve to collapse, paralyzing the muscles.
When this happens, one side of the face—there are two nerves, and which side is affected depends on which nerve is inflamed—droops and twitches. This causes difficulties with facial expressions, particularly smiling, and can cause slurred speech. The nerve damage also means a lessened sense of taste and an increased sensitivity to sound. In some cases, there can be pain in the ear or the jaw on the side where the palsy is.
In addition to people who have had upper respiratory infections being vulnerable to Bell’s palsy, it often strikes women in the third trimester of pregnancy or in the first week or so after giving birth. People with diabetes are also likely to get the condition. The link between these and Bell’s palsy is not well-understood.
Diagnosing Bell’s palsy means ruling out other possible causes of paralysis, such as stroke or tumors. There’s no test for Bell’s palsy specifically, but your doctor can look for nerve damage if a patient is experiencing facial paralysis with no clear cause. Because of the possibility of stroke, it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you find your face is paralyzed. However, Bell’s palsy itself usually goes away without treatment. If not, or to speed the process, doctors may use anti-inflammatory drugs to alleviate the swelling. In fact, a study last November found that corticosteroids are the most effective treatment, particularly for the 15 percent of people for whom muscle strength never fully returns.
There is also some evidence that some forms of acupuncture can help with Bell’s palsy. In a study, patients who received deep and intense acupuncture called de qi showed improvement six months after treatment. Wilson is getting acupuncture and has reported success.