Bell’s palsy is a unique condition that freezes one side of the face. Often people who experience this condition feel as if half their face is cold and numb; as if they have gotten anesthesia from the dentist. With one side paralyzed, they can only smile or frown using half their face. To make matters worse, it may be impossible to shut their eye or that side of their mouth. It is disfiguring, may cause anxiety, and seems to strike when you least expect it.
This condition is caused by damage to nerves that paralyzes half the face. Other symptoms include excessive tearing of the eyes and possibly drooling from the side of the mouth that can’t be moved. It can also be accompanied by distortions of taste and a tingling feeling around the lips.
According to Western medicine, the cause of Bell's palsy is nerve damage to the peripheral nervous system (in other words, not the central nervous system). This damage is typically caused by hemorrhage, hypertension, injury, or stress. Many people mistakenly believe it is caused by a stroke because of its similar symptoms. It is most common among pregnant women and those who suffer from diabetes. Bell’s Palsy strikes 1 in 5,000 Americans.
Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the whole organism and formulates its diagnosis accordingly. The cause of Bell's palsy, according to TCM, is an invasion of ‘cold wind’ and the pathology referred to as zhong feng, which means, “wind attack.” In Chinese medical theory, wind carries diseases and pathogens, and may invade superficial (nearer the surface of the skin) energy channels, causing a variety of symptoms.
Clinically, acupuncture is very successful in treating Bell's palsy; in fact, it is one of the only consistently successful methods of treatment. As with most conditions, it is especially effective when treatments begin soon after the onset of symptoms. Generally, acupuncturists employ acupuncture, massage, mild electric stimulation, therapeutic exercises, and/or a heat source to stimulate acupuncture points, thus freeing up energetic flow, alleviating pain, and reducing swelling. Compared to other ailments, acupuncture induces incremental improvements and, therefore, will benefit more from a longer course of treatment - usually 1 to 2 treatments per week for up to 10 weeks.
Patients who experience Bell's palsy are advised to avoid contact with wind - to make sure windows are closed at night, not sleep with a fan in the room, and to avoid air conditioners and drafty rooms.
Michael A. Sassack is a licensed and board certified acupuncturist serving the northwest suburbs of Chicago.