Bell’s Palsy is a relatively rare condition, affecting 11-40 people for every 100,000 annually (depending on the country). The symptoms of facial paralysis can come on quickly and seem frightening, but most make a full recovery. For some, however, they are left with long term complications and do not fully recover nerve function, and an estimated 7% will have bell’s palsy again in the future.
In China, bell’s palsy is routinely treated with acupuncture, with entire wards of integrative hospitals dedicated to it’s treatment. In this article we’ll cover what bell’s palsy is, how it’s most commonly treated and then look at Chinese medicine for bell’s palsy.
What Is It Like To Get Bell’s Palsy?
Often the first sign of bell’s palsy is noticed after waking up and looking in the mirror, seeing an abnormal droop on one side of the face. The symptoms typically fully develop over 48-72 hours and can include:
Weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles on one side of the face
Inability to fully close the eye
Dry eye due to inability to close eyelid completely
Drooping of the corner of the mouth
Impaired or loss of taste
Difficulty with eating due to muscle weakness causing food to become trapped
Altered sensation on the affected side of the face
Increased sensitivity to sound
This can be frightening to wake up to and embarrassing to deal with as it recovers. Most make a full recovery, but for some severe cases, 13% will have long term minor facial weakness on the affected side, and 4% can have long term major weakness and dysfunction.
How Is Bell’s Palsy Diagnosed?
There is no clear, accepted cause for bell’s palsy and so there are no specific lab tests to confirm a diagnosis. The most accepted current theory is that it is a latent viral infection affecting the facial nerve, but all we can confirm is that there is inflammation and swelling of the facial nerve in cases of bell’s palsy. Usually a clinical diagnosis is made based on the history, onset and a neurological exam to rule out other possible causes such as stroke.
How Is Bell’s Palsy Treated?
Left untreated, 70-75% make a full recovery within 6 months, but usually within 3 weeks. With early treatment of corticosteroids (a strong anti-inflammatory) within 72 hours, full recovery rates can increase to 82%. Sometimes in severe cases, an anti-viral medication may be combined with corticosteroids, though the research does not clearly support this.
Whether treated with medication or not, it is particularly important to ensure proper protection and care of the affected eye which will be prone to drying out and being damaged without the protection of full closure of the eyelid. Eye drops are used to keep the eye lubricated and an eye patch may be used to protect the eye depending on the severity.
Even with such high rates of recovery, considering there is still 17% or more chance of chronic effects, many people will seek other therapies to help improve their chance of a full and speedy recovery. Others who have been left with chronic symptoms continue to seek treatment to restore normal function to the facial muscles.
Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture For Bell’s Palsy
Chinese medicine has recognised the symptoms of bell’s palsy for thousands of years and over that time has developed numerous treatment approaches using acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. In China, acupuncture for bell’s palsy is routinely used within integrative hospitals to improve recovery times and outcomes. The current research suggests that acupuncture may be superior to pharmaceutical treatment, though better quality research is still required to provide a more reliable base of evidence.
While we wait for the research to catch up, modern practitioners use traditional acupuncture techniques to help support the recovery of bell’s palsy. The sooner you can start acupuncture after the onset of symptoms, the better chances of a good outcome. This isn’t to say that chronic cases cannot be helped, but these are typically more stubborn and will require more time.
At Village Remedies clinics in Balmain and Sydney CBD we use a distal style of acupuncture where we use points distant to the affected area with the goal of improving circulation, reducing inflammation and soothing the nervous system. This means you don’t have to worry about any needles in the face, also it also frees you up to combine facial exercises while the points are in which help enhance the effect. We may also recommend herbs based on your particular needs.