Waking up one morning to a half paralyzed face likely ranks at the top of any of our ‘worst day ever’ lists, but for 40,000 Americans each year, this is reality. Bell’s Palsy is an idiopathic paralysis of the face, usually causing drooping of the mouth and eyelid due to infringement on the Facial Nerve, symptoms mimic a stroke, but with no neurological impairment. (1) Due to the unknown causes of this condition, treatment options are limited, consisting usually of a course of steroids like Prednisone and in some cases an antiviral like Valacyclovir. Patients are sent home with these medications and told to ‘wait it out.’ I don’t know about you, but if half of my face was paralyzed, waiting it out would not be a prescription I would be on board with.
The root of the paralysis in Bell’s Palsy is the 7th Cranial Nerve - The Facial Nerve. This nerve travels through a narrow bony canal in the skull, beneath the ear to the muscles in the face and is responsible for facial movements such as blinking the eye, smiling and frowning, it also carries nerve impulses to the tear and salivary glands, and transmits taste sensations from the tongue. In Bell’s Palsy cases it is thought that the nerve has been subject to some sort of inflammation or impingement which disrupts the function of the nerve resulting in this paralysis and other facial deficiencies.(1) Because of the unknown etiology, or cause, of this impingement, the modern medical treatments for the disorder are rather limited in their scope and approach.
An acupuncture treatment for Bell’s Palsy involves first, treating the underlying constitution of the patient, addressing matters like sleep, stress, digestion, energy, emotions, etc. A Bell’s Palsy diagnosis can be a very stressful event, so it’s important that we address the entire person in this holistic way. The next part of the treatment is focused on the face and helping to decrease inflammation around the 7th cranial nerve. By decreasing this inflammation we can help the nerve release from it’s impingement thus bringing function back to the nerve and restoring the function of the facial muscles. Treatments will vary in approach depending on how long a person has been suffering from Bell’s Palsy, generally a more acute case will use only needles where a chronic case would add in electro-stimulation to enhance the treatment. Needles are placed along the pathway of the facial nerve often needling into the foramen of the face to more directly access the nerve. By treating the facial nerve with acupuncture we are stimulating the body’s immune system, and part of this process is to enhance energetic and lymphatic flow through the area, thus reducing inflammation.
One thing is for certain when it comes to Bell’s Palsy cases - time is of the essence. In most cases this condition is self-limiting; meaning it likely won’t get any worse and will recover with time, but full recovery isn’t always the case. Being proactive about your care is extremely important, and this means looking outside of the common medical model for alternative treatment options. Acupuncture has been used for treatment of deviation of the eyes and mouth for hundreds of years, and in present day is a useful treatment strategy to help resolve Bell’s Palsy cases. The initial 2 weeks of a Bell’s Palsy case is the most crucial time to seek out treatment, addressing the disease in the acute phase is more likely to garner an acute recovery, in other words - the sooner we treat the condition, the more likely it is to go into remission faster. Research studies continue to show favorable effects of acupuncture and electro-acupuncture in the treatment of Bell’s Palsy cases, indicating that treating the condition in the acute phase, and at frequent intervals is beneficial to the remission of the paralysis. (2)
Hope in the Long Run
While the majority of Bell’s Palsy cases will resolve entirely within a few weeks to months, there are cases where this paralysis can be more permanent and does not resolve on its own, either entirely or partially. This is another case where acupuncture treatments have been shown to help improve the outcomes for patients with a longer standing paralysis. Even after the acute phase has passed, cases that are many years old can still garner improvements to mobility, sensation and even complete recovery with frequent, directed acupuncture treatments.(3) Treatments for Bell’s Palsy are taught as general curriculum in acupuncture schools, attesting to the treatment’s time tested usefulness. Patients in the acute or chronic phases of the disease can benefit from acupuncture treatments and should absolutely seek our treatment as soon as possible.
Factors that enhance the likelihood of favorable results are of course - seeking immediate treatment, seeking a licensed and trained Acupuncturist, especially one who has specific training or experience in treating the condition, and committing to frequent treatments. Treatment frequency can vary based on the individual’s specific presentation. In general - an acute case should be seen 2-3 times per week, at minimum, until the condition subsides. In chronic cases treatment frequency may be adjusted, depending on how the patient is responding, generally beginning treatments at the 2-3 sessions per week rate, then re-evaluating every 4 weeks to adjust the schedule based on response. Chronic cases may never subside entirely in many cases, however even treatments at a less rapid frequency over a longer period of time can garner results, however they may be more subtle and take longer to achieve.
It is never too late to seek out treatment for Bell’s Palsy, while sooner is better, now is always better than never. Most patients see improvement in their symptoms, even after a years long case. The use of acupuncture for Bell’s Palsy has been garnering more notoriety, even being recommended in some disease profiles online, but it’s still not recommended enough, in my opinion. The risks of acupuncture are extremely minimal when done by a licensed professional, and the potential benefit is incredibly large, particularly when we’re talking about such a life altering condition as Bell’s Palsy. I implore you to store this bit of information in the back of your brain for the next time someone you know is unfortunately afflicted by this condition, it’s important for us to pass on any and all relevant treatment strategies so that Bell’s Palsy patients can get the full treatment they need in order to help garner a full and complete recovery.
Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc is the Owner and Acupuncturist at Lion's Heart Wellness, the San Francisco Bay Area and Marin's #1 Cosmetic Acupuncturist and #1 Holistic Healer.