Bell's palsy is caused by an inflammation of the facial nerve - the nerve that controls the facial muscles. The swelling interferes with the nerve's ability to effectively communicate with the muscles of the face. The result is partial or total paralysis of one side of the face. This condition affects men and women equally.
The inflammation is thought to be caused by a virus. Diabetes and hypertension may increase the risk of developing Bell's palsy.
Symptoms of Bell's palsy develop quickly. The part of the face that is paralyzed becomes expressionless, the corners of the mouth may droop and the individual may have difficulty articulating words and chewing. The paralysis is often accompanied by an inability to close an eye (on the affected side), which may cause the eye to become dry. The following symptoms may also occur:
- facial pain, in or behind the ear;
- facial numbness;
- sensitivity to sound (sounds seem louder);
- impaired sense of taste.
If you have these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. A doctor can usually identify Bell's palsy based on the symptoms and a physical examination.
There is no cure for Bell's palsy. However, in an effort to speed up recovery and, in an attempt to minimize damage to the facial nerve, the doctor may, in certain situations, prescribe medication.
- Prednisone (cortisone) to help reduce swelling.
- An antiviral to treat infection, if indicated.
- Analgesics to relieve pain, e.g., acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Artificial tears to keep the eye moist.
Bell's palsy often resolves on its own. Symptoms disappear within three weeks and most individuals recover completely within 3 to 6 months. Some, however, are left with permanent damage.