You’re sitting across the table with a friend having a nice conversation over dinner, when you notice something’s wrong: half of your friend’s face is drooping.
Because you’re not a doctor, the first thing that runs through your mind is “stroke,” and off you go to the emergency room. A few tests later, your friend has a much less grievous diagnosis: Bell’s palsy–a fancy term for facial paralysis or weakness. (Bell’s palsy is not stroke-related, despite its somewhat scary onset). Approximately 40,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with it every year.
Bell’s palsy is named for Charles Bell, a 19th Century doctor who identified the cause as damage to the facial nerve–the seventh cranial nerve, to be exact. The best way to explain how this nerve operates is to say that the facial nerve passes through a narrow bony canal, also known as the fallopian canal, in the skull and connects to both sides of the face, passing behind the ears. Because the nerve is usually protected by bone, its normal function is preserved. When damage occurs, the signal from the brain to that nerve is disrupted and one side of the face droops. In rare cases, both sides of the face can be affected. The patient may also lose the ability to taste because of Bell’s palsy’s impact on the tongue.
Bell’s palsy can be triggered by viral infections like the herpes simplex-1 virus (HSV-1), which signals an immune response causing inflammation and compression of facial nerves in the fallopian canal.
With reduced or no blood flow, the nerves cannot receive or send signals to the brain and this causes Bell’s palsy.
Other people get Bell’s palsy from conditions like Lyme disease, sarcoidosis or for no (yet) apparent reason. The good news/bad news is it can be temporary and resolve over a period of weeks or months, or it can become a chronic condition. Treatments vary greatly, so if you have any questions or concerns, your best bet is to talk to your doctor.
To learn more about Bell’s palsy, contact the following organizations.
Have you ever experienced Bell’s Palsy? Did you find the trigger for it? Share your thoughts with us!