Bell palsy

Definition

Bell palsy is a disorder of the nerve that controls movement of the muscles in the face. This nerve is called the facial or seventh cranial nerve.

Damage to this nerve causes weakness or paralysis of these muscles. Paralysis means that you cannot use the muscles at all.

Alternative Names

Facial palsy; Idiopathic peripheral facial palsy; Cranial mononeuropathy - Bell palsy; Bell palsy

Causes

Bell palsy can affect people of any age, most commonly those over 65 years old. It can also affect children younger than 13.

Bell palsy is thought to be due to swelling (inflammation) of the facial nerve in the area where it travels through the bones of the skull. This nerve controls movement of the muscles of the face.

The cause is often not clear. A type of herpes infection called herpes zoster might be involved. Other conditions that may cause Bell palsy include:

Having diabetes and being pregnant may increase the risk for Bell palsy.

Symptoms

Sometimes, you may have a cold shortly before the symptoms of Bell palsy begin.

Symptoms most often start suddenly, but may take 2 to 3 days to show up. They do not become more severe after that.

Symptoms are almost always on one side of the face only. They may range from mild to severe.

Many people feel discomfort behind the ear before weakness is noticed. The face feels stiff or pulled to one side, and may look different. Other signs can include:

Other symptoms that may occur:

Exams and Tests

Often, Bell palsy can be diagnosed just by taking a health history and doing a complete physical exam.

Blood tests will be done to look for medical problems such as Lyme disease, which may cause Bell palsy.

Sometimes, a test is needed to check the nerves that supply the muscles of the face:

If your provider is worried that a brain tumor is causing your symptoms, you may need:

Treatment

Often, no treatment is needed. Symptoms often begin to improve right away. But, it may take weeks or even months for the muscles to get stronger.

Your provider may give you lubricating eye drops or eye ointments to keep the surface of the eye moist if you can't close it completely. You may need to wear an eye patch while you sleep.

Sometimes, medicines may be used, but it isn't known how much they help. If medicines are used, they are started right away. Common medicines are:

Surgery to relieve pressure on the nerve (decompression surgery) has not been shown to benefit most people with Bell palsy.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most cases go away completely within a few weeks to months.

If you did not lose all of your nerve function and symptoms began to improve within 3 weeks, you are more likely to regain all or most of the strength in your facial muscles.

Sometimes, the following symptoms may still be present:

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider right away if your face droops or you have other symptoms of Bell palsy. Your provider can rule out other, more serious conditions, such as stroke.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent Bell palsy.

References

Baugh RF, Basura GJ, Ishii LE, et al. Clinical practice guideline: Bell's palsy. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013;149(3 Suppl):S1-S27. PMID: 24189771. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24189771.

Gantz BJ, Roche JP, Redleaf MI, Perry BP, Gubbles SP. Management of Bell's palsy and Ramsay Hunt syndrome. In: Brackmann DE, Shelton CS, Arriaga MA, eds. Otologic Surgery. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 27.

Gronseth GS, Paduga R; American Academy of Neurology. Evidence-based guideline update: steroids and antivirals for Bell palsy: report of the Guideline Development Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2012;79(22):2209-2213. PMID: 23136264. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23136264.

Mattox DE. Clinical disorders of facial nerve. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 170.



Review Date: 5/30/2016
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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