Bell’s palsy is a condition where the nerve that controls the facial muscles becomes swollen or compressed, causing sudden facial paralysis or weakness on one side of the face and making it difficult to smile or close the eye on the affected side. Symptoms may include facial droop and difficulty with facial expressions, pain behind or in front of the ear on the affected side, sounds that seem louder on the affected side, headaches, loss of taste, and changes in the amount of tears and saliva the body produces.
The nerve that controls the facial muscles passes through a narrow corridor of bone on its way to the face. With Bell’s palsy, this nerve becomes inflamed and swollen, usually from infection with a virus, and gets pinched in this tight corridor. Pressure from the bone can damage the protective covering of the nerve and interfere with communication between the nerve and the facial muscles, resulting in weakness and paralysis. The most common virus that causes Bell’s palsy is herpes simplex, the virus that causes cold sores. Other viruses that are believed to cause Bell’s palsy are the viruses that cause chicken pox, shingles, flu, and mononeucleosis.
Most people with Bell’s palsy recover fully, with symptoms beginning to improve within a few weeks, and complete recovery within three to six months. A small number of people never fully recover and continue to have some symptoms for life. Western medical treatment may include medications such as corticosteroids or antiviral drugs, exercise and massage, and in very rare cases, surgery to relieve the pressure on the facial nerve. It’s also very important to protect the eye on the affected side, using eye drops and eye salves to prevent the eye from drying out and causing permanent damage.
Chinese medicine (TCM) takes a slightly different approach to Bell’s palsy. After all, there are many of us who suffer from these common viruses such as cold sores, flu, chicken pox, and shingles, but only about 1% of people will experience Bell’s palsy. This is where lifestyle and our natural constitution come into play, two factors which Chinese medicine always considers to be very important to any health condition. Typically, Bell’s palsy can arise when the body is left vulnerable because of what we call a qi-energy deficiency. Our qi-energy is what powers all of our body’s normal functions, and a shortage of qi-energy naturally will have an effect on our body’s ability to function at its optimum health. It is then easier for us to be affected by outside influences or injury. A qi-energy vacuity is a pattern that develops slowly over time, and can be caused by lifestyle factors that deplete the body, such as a diet of incorrect foods, overwork, or chronic stress.
Acupuncture can offer Bell’s palsy sufferers a quicker and more complete recovery. Treatment promotes the flow of qi-energy and blood to relieve the rigidity and paralysis of the facial muscles and to supply them with a sufficient flow of energy and blood for healing. Because Bell’s palsy is seen as an external attack on the body (such as with cold or flu, where something “invades” the body), treatment also works to “drive out” the pathogen, as it would with a virus- which is very much in line with Western medicine thinking as to the causes of Bell’s palsy. In this way, acupuncture can help to diminish the symptoms of Bell’s palsy, as well as strengthen the body for a better recovery and reduced likelihood of re-occurrence.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.