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Acupuncture and Bell’s Palsy

By Diane Sheppard, Ph.D, L.Ac.

Bell’s Palsy is a condition resulting from damage to the 7th cranial (facial) nerve, usually affecting only one side of the face.   Onset is rapid, with a mild weakness to total paralysis, which can cause the face to seem to “droop,” making smiling and other facial expressions difficult, and often impairing the ability to close the eye on the affected side.  

There can be pain around the jaw or behind the ear, decreasing the sense of taste and changing the production of saliva and tears. Often a person who cannot close their eye will need to lubricate it and tape it shut at night.

Exact cause of this damage, which can be exhibited as swelling, inflammation, or compression of the nerve, is unknown although thought to be related to prior viral infections such as herpes, chickenpox, shingles, Epstein Barr, or respiratory illness. 

 In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the diagnosis for Bell’s Palsy is “External wind-cold attacking the channels of the face.” The main implication of this is an underlying qi (inherent energy) deficiency or a lowered immune system.  Sometimes sweating and sitting under a fan, or being out on windy days, may trigger an episode.

TCM has been used for thousands of years to assist in Bell’s Palsy recovery.  Acupuncture, often combined with electro-stim, for 3 or 4 sessions per week, can help expedite dissipation of the paralysis and enhance nerve function, as well as soothe a patient from the very upsetting and uncomfortable emotional component, which can often cause depression.

In our clinic, we have had full recovery in some patients and major improvement with others who have been suffering for years. It still amazes me to see someone whose eye has not closed gently shut with the insertion of just a few needles. There is an increased risk of Bell’s Palsy during pregnancy, greatest in the third trimester, and it is especially gratifying to see symptom alleviation in these young mothers-to-be.

TCM also incorporates herbs to promote effective functioning of the nervous system, relieve stress (which can exacerbate Bell’s Palsy), and heal affected nerves. Supplements of vitamins B12 and B6, and zinc, can promote nerve growth and may help quicken the recovery of the damaged facial nerve.

Specialized therapeutic massage of the afflicted areas and practicing daily facial exercises can also help ease the symptoms. As stress can worsen the condition, full-body massage can also assist with recovery. Electro muscle stimulation with a TENS unit or electro-acupuncture along with physical therapy has also proven beneficial. 

The disorder, which so typically appears suddenly, can resolve within a few weeks, though severe cases may require longer treatments. Rarely, some may persist for up to a year.  If unusually stubborn, medications like the steroid prednisone and the antiviral medication acyclovir may reduce nerve swelling (although this is still unclear). Steroids should be avoided during pregnancy. Analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen can reduce pain. 

The most important thing is to seek help as soon as the symptoms appear. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more difficult and time consuming it is to treat.

Diane Sheppard is owner of AcQpoint Wellness Center in La Quinta. She is a licensed acupuncturist with a Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine and can be reached at (760) 775.7900. www.AcQPoint.com.

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