Bell’s Palsy (Facial Paralysis)

Facial paralysis occurs when the facial nerve fibers are irritated or disrupted. A number of factors can cause this – infections, injuries, tumors and strokes, for instance – but the most common is a condition known as Bell’s palsy. Facial paralysis can affect anybody, but is most prominent in people over 40 or those with diabetes, upper respiratory disorders, weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

Causes of Facial Paralysis

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The facial nerve is responsible for carrying electrical impulses from the brain to the facial muscles, enabling us to laugh, cry, smile and frown. When these signals are interrupted, facial paralysis – the inability to move the muscles of the face – occurs. This may be either temporary or permanent, and usually affects one side of the face only.

Bell’s palsy is often to blame. Symptoms of this disorder include:

  • Muscle weakness or paralysis.
  • Facial droopiness or swelling.
  • Difficulty blinking or closing one eye.
  • Twitching of facial muscles.
  • Trouble speaking, eating and drinking.
  • Sensitivity to sound.
  • Ear pain.
  • Drooling.

Bell’s palsy affects 30,000 – 40,000 Americans every year, and occurs when the facial nerve becomes inflamed.

Other conditions that cause facial paralysis include physical trauma, stroke, Lyme disease, Sarcoidosis, Moebius syndrome, herpes and tumors.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Facial nerve problems are diagnosed through a series of tests. These might include hearing and balance tests to measure the response of the auditory nerve; tear, taste and salivation tests to determine the severity of nerve lesions; electrical nerve stimulation tests to check for facial muscle responsiveness and imaging tests (CT scan or MRI) to visually determine whether facial nerve problems are being caused by infection, fractures, tumors, etc.

Treatment is dependent upon results of your test, and designed to eliminate the source of the nerve damage. Antibiotics are prescribed for infections, while steroids can be used to combat swelling. Decompression surgery to remove the bone surrounding the facial nerve can help in some situations. Physical therapy is often recommended to help with long-term results.