Acupuncture for Bell’s Palsy

Acupuncture can be effective in treatment of Bell’s Palsy which is a sudden & temporary paralysis on the face. The main focus of your acupuncturist in the treatment of Bell’s Palsy is to eliminate pathogenic factors, and improve circulation of oxygen/blood to the muscles & nerves of the face to regain function. There are certain conditions that often mimic Bell’s Palsy such as stroke, infections, Lyme Disease, and tumors.

What is Bell’s Palsy?

            Bell’s Palsy is a variety of facial nerve paralysis around the peripheral nervous system (PNS), and occurs when the seventh cranial nerve become infected, inflamed, or compressed & usually only affects one side of the face. There are very rare cases where it is on both sides of the face resulting in total facial paralysis, but this in <1% of people. The onset of Bell’s Palsy is fairly sudden and can come as a shock to most people. Many wake up and find one side of their face to be paralyzed, and patients often fear that they have had a stroke, but Bell’s Palsy is not entirely related to a stroke. The cause of non-stroke related facial paralysis is by direct damage to the facial nerve.  The cause of Bell’s Palsy in stroke is due to damage in the brain which cannot send signals to the facial nerve, but the nerve itself is not usually damaged.

Some facts & stats about Bell’s Palsy:

  • Bell’s Palsy affects about 40,000 people in the United States every year, and affects about 1 in 65 people during a lifetime.
  • Bell’s Palsy is most common in ages 15-60, but it can affect someone at any age.
  • Bell’s Palsy is the most common cause of facial paralysis worldwide, and most common of neurological disorders concerning the cranial nerve (about 70%).
  • The occurrence of Bell’s Palsy amongst men and women is equal as well as the severity of the condition and the rate of recovery.
  • It occurs in 1-4 per 10,000 people every year which means about 1.5% of people are affected at some point in their life.
  • Bell’s Palsy was named after Scottish surgeon Charles Bell who first described the connection of the facial nerve to the condition.

Most patients with Bell’s Palsy will slowly regain normal facial function after three to six weeks, and many will fully recover usually in about six months. The others that do not fully recover after this point are normally referred to physical therapy for intervention.

Bell’s Palsy Symptoms, Causes, & Risks

            The symptoms of Bell’s Palsy usually develop anywhere from one to two weeks after you have a cold, ear infection, or eye infection, and usually appear abruptly, sometimes within a 48 hour period. There are several viruses/bacteria that have been linked to the development of Bell’s Palsy including herpes simplex, HIV, sarcoidosis, chickenpox/shingles, mononucleosis, Lyme Disease, mumps, and influenza.

Other signs/symptoms of Bell’s Palsy include:

  • Struggling with eating and drinking

  • Facial weakness

  • Drooling

  • Sensitivity to sound

  • Headache

  • Irritation of the eye on the affected side

  • Earache on the affected side

  • An inability to make facial expressions such as smiling or frowning

  • Muscle twitches in the face

  • Dry eye and mouth

  • Lack of taste

  • An inability to cry

  • Slurred speech

  • Pain in the jaw on the affected side

Many patients either have no symptoms beforehand or they miss the warning signs which are very subtle including neck pain, pain behind the ear, or pain in the back of the head.

The exact cause of Bell’s Palsy is unknown, but many scientists and researchers believe it is most likely due to or triggered by a viral infection. It is also believed to be due to a swelling or inflammation of the cranial nerve as stated above linked with exposure of the aforementioned viruses, most commonly related being herpes simplex virus. If the cause is still unclear, certain tests such as the Electromyography (EMG), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), or Computerized Tomography (CT) are conducted to confirm a Bell’s Palsy diagnosis and rule out other possible sources of pressure on the facial nerve.

The risk of contracting Bell’s Palsy increases:

  • If you are pregnant

  • If you have diabetes

  • If you have a lung infection

  • If you have an upper respiratory tract infection

  • If you have a family history of the condition (which has been found in 4-14% of cases, and there may be an association with migraines).

The reactivation of an existing viral infection has also been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s Palsy, and this reactivation can be triggered by stress, trauma, environmental factors, and emotional disorders like anxiety/depression.

How does Acupuncture & TCM work for Bell’s Palsy?

            In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Bell’s Palsy is usually given a diagnosis of “External Wind-Cold.” Environmental factors attack the channels of the face causing a narrowing of the blood vessels, and therefore affecting the function of the nerves. When the body cannot fight off these pathogens on its own, it causes the symptoms associated with Bell’s Palsy, such as paralysis and pain.

Depending on the condition of the patient, electroacupuncture may be used to stimulate certain acupuncture points & increase the strength/benefits of the treatment. In this type of treatment, two needles are used instead of one and an electrical current is passed between the needles increasing the benefits of the acupuncture points.

Acupuncture can treat Bell’s Palsy in the following ways:

  • Stimulate the affected nerves

  • Reduce swelling by boosting the immune system

  • Enhance circulation by increasing speed and diameter of blood flow in small blood vessels

  • Reduce pain associated with Bell’s Palsy

  • Speed up recovery of facial muscle function by encouraging blood flow

It is the job of acupuncture to address any imbalances, deficiencies, or excesses in the body in order to restore function to the facial nerve and muscles. It is important if you are diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy to begin acupuncture treatments as soon as possible to make sure the most complete recovery is possible.  Acupuncture treatment for Bell’s Palsy may be recommended two to three times a week for the best results in regaining function.

For the treatment of Bell’s Palsy, certain acupuncture points may be needled locally (in the face) and/or distally (away from the face).  Your acupuncturist will assess your particular needs and issues and provide the best points for your situation. Although the symptoms of Bell’s Palsy are the same, every person’s body responds to acupuncture differently.

Acupuncture points commonly used to treat Bell’s Palsy:

  • GB20 – Wind Pool – Feng Chi – used for paralysis, twitching, tremors, numbness, dizziness, vertigo, and all issues of the head/brain.

  • ST6 – Jawbone – Jiache – used for TMJ, toothache, Bell’s Palsy, twitching, facial pain/paralysis, and deviation of mouth/jaw

  • ST3 – Great Bone-Hole – Juliao – twitching eyelids, pain/swelling of the cheek, trigeminal neuralgia, toothache, and deviation from stroke/Bell’s Palsy/facial paralysis

  • SI18 – Cheek Bone Hole – Quan Liao – local point for facial disorders, Bell’s Palsy, trigeminal neuralgia, spasm, twitching of the eyelids/facial muscles

  • LU7 – Broken Sequence – Lie Que – Bell’s Palsy, twitching, spasms, lockjaw, and cold/flu symptoms

Both local and distal points are used because local points on the face itself will encourage blood flow and stimulate the nerve function that has been damaged, while distal points are used to take advantage of the all of the body’s resources.

Acupuncture for Bell’s Palsy Research

            Acupuncture for the treatment of Bell’s Palsy allows for an all-natural way to stimulate damaged nerves and regain function. In western medicine, the treatments for Bell’s Palsy usually fall into the realm of over-the-counter drugs, prescription steroids/antivirals (depending on the patient condition), and in extreme cases, surgery. The use of acupuncture treatment is a viable treatment, especially for those that cannot take and/or mix certain medications.

A study done in 2010 testing electroacupuncture for Bell’s Palsy showed rapid recovery of palsy symptoms, and is effective in treating facial palsy. Another study done in 2014 tested electroacupuncture as well on facial nerve function showing that it alleviates symptoms, eases affected nerve recovery, and encourages the reduction of herpes simplex virus (where Bell’s Palsy can potentially come from). The benefits of acupuncture for the treatment of Bell’s Palsy are significant and worth investigating. 

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