Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis, usually one-sided, that can occur at any age . It is characterised by an abrupt onset in difficulty closing the eyelid, drooping at the side of the mouth, inability to raise the eyebrows and bulge the cheeks, wrinkles are absent on the affected side and there is an altered sense of taste.
There is often irritation in the affected eye due to it being constantly exposed. The affected side is usually hypersensitive with pain in or around the ear.
The incidence in the West is approximately 20-30 cases per 100 000 people, however recently at the Allerton Heath Centre we have noticed an increase in the number of people requesting treatment for Bell’s palsy.
Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) was a Scottish surgeon-anatomist who found that the 7th cranial nerve controlled facial expression and compression of this nerve led to facial paralysis, hence the name Bell’s Palsy. The facial nerve passes through a narrow gap of bone as it runs from the brain to the face. One of the causes of is thought to be a virus such as Herpes that can cause inflammation of the nerve so that it presses against the cheekbone thus interfering with the nervous signals from the brain to the face, leading to weakness and paralysis.
People with a lowered immune system (e.g. pregnant women, those who are HIV+, those recovering from influenza) are at increased risk of developing Bell’s palsy. It is also slightly more prevalent during the Winter.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, facial paralysis is caused by an emptiness and weakness of the acupuncture channels on the face. This emptiness allows an invasion of Wind resulting in stagnation of Qi and blood, causing flaccidity of the muscles. The treatment principle would be to remove obstruction from the channels and rectify any deficiencies of Qi and blood that allowed the invasion to occur.
Although TCM uses different language to describe the causes of facial paralysis there are similarities with the Western medicine viewpoint. Bell’s Palsy occurs mainly in those with a weakened immune system (deficient in Qi and blood), herpes virus is thought to be an instigator (invasion of a Pathogenic Factor such as Wind) and inflammation/compression of the 7th cranial nerve (stagnation of Qi and blood).
Acupuncture points are needled local to the affected region(s) and body points will be needled too to address any underlying imbalances. It is advisable to have acupuncture treatment as soon as possible as this will increase effectiveness. Most people will have around 6 - 8 weekly acupuncture sessions initially with frequency of visits tailoring off. In China people will have acupuncture daily for 2 weeks which seems to hasten recovery. Anecdotally, whilst studying in China I saw many people with Bell’s palsy. I was told that the Chinese have a higher incidence of Bell’s palsy than Westerners but have a lower incidence of MS than in the West.
The sudden and dramatic onset can have profound effects on a person’s mental health and self esteem. Acupuncture can help to lift the mood and lessen anxiety.
Acupuncture can help with Bell’s palsy by reducing the inflammation of the facial nerve, addressing any underlying imbalances and calming anxiety.