What is Bell’s Palsy?
Once again, Angelina Jolie has reminded us that everyone–even if you’re one of the best-known actresses in the world–has their health struggles at some time. This time, Jolie revealed she’s suffered from Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes parts of the face.
“Angelina recently credited acupuncture for the full recovery of her Bell's palsy," says Catherine Lu, licensed acupuncturist at the St. Joseph Hoag Health Wellness Corner at LA Fitness Crossroads in Irvine, a center that recently opened and is dedicated to natural therapies such as chiropractic care, physical therapy and acupuncture. "In traditional Chinese medicine, Bell’s palsy is termed 'External Wind-Cold attacking the channels of the face.' According to TCM principles, one of the main implications of this condition is an underlying qi (a person’s inherent energy) deficiency. In China, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to assist in Bell’s palsy recovery, and the initial treatment goal would be to expel Wind and resolve Damp, as well as to invigorate qi and promote blood circulation to the face. Consistent acupuncture treatments (usually recommended once or twice per week), can help expedite resolution of paralysis, and enhance nerve function. Compared with drug-based treatments, acupuncture also has fewer side effects, and promotes body’s innate healing power naturally.”
As Lu and other medical experts commenting on Jolie warn, they do not know all the details of her case.
In general, however, Bell's palsy is marked by mild to severe facial paralysis. Typical signs are a drooping eyelid or side of the mouth. Also, one eye might produce more tears than the unaffected side. Or, the mouth may produce excess saliva (or too little) and the sense of taste may be affected, as well as the ability to eat or drink.
The condition occurs when there is pressure on blood vessels leading to the facial nerves. Without enough blood flow, the nerves are affected and can cause paralysis. There are several possible reasons for blood flow to be restricted including hypertension, trauma or viral infection.
And we know that Bell's palsy affects about 40,000 Americans each year, mostly those older than 15 and younger than 60. Actor George Clooney reports that he suffered briefly from the condition as a teenager when he suddenly found he couldn’t drink a glass of milk. Pierce Brosnan told a reporter he had a short bout after catching a virus in the 1980s. And Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the Mountain from Game of Thrones, spread news of his diagnosis through social media.
The good news for both actors and the rest of us is that usually mild cases resolve themselves within two weeks. Almost all patients recover fully within three to six months, although in rare cases the problem can last much longer or there could be a recurrence.
Some physicians will prescribe medications such as steroids or analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which may relieve any accompanying pain. Others will recommend a course of treatment like Jolie had, advising natural treatments such as physical therapy, facial massage or acupuncture to relieve discomfort and improve facial nerve function.
Another important factor is eye protection. Bell's palsy can impact the eyelid's natural blinking ability, leaving the eye exposed to irritation and drying. Therefore, it’s very important to keep the eye moist and protect it from injury. Some doctors also recommend using lubricating eye drops or eye patches while recovering from Bell’s palsy.
Also, it’s critical that patients and their families don’t mistake stroke for Bell’s palsy. Although both conditions need attention, stroke can be life threatening if not responded to immediately.
The main difference between stroke and Bell’s palsy is that stroke more likely occurs when the entire body goes weak, not just facial muscles. If the afflicted person can raise both eyebrows, but the lower face is still drooping, it’s more likely Bell’s palsy. On the other hand, if there is an inability to raise both eyebrows and there’s weakness to the entire side of their face, it’s more likely stroke. Most emergency room personal can tell the difference right away, so it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
“By candidly sharing her health crisis with the public, Angelina Jolie has once again raised our awareness of a health condition that we should learn about," says Lu. "She has also demonstrated that one should empower themselves in being vigilant about their own health, and be open-minded in seeking medical care.”
Learn more about Wellness Corner, LA Fitness - Crossroads.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.