Bell’s Palsy is a condition when muscles on one side of the face become weak or paralyzed, causing loss of motion and drooping of the face. It comes on suddenly, usually over a day or two. It’s the most common cause of facial paralysis and it’s easily mistaken for a stroke. Most often there is full recovery, but in some cases the recovery is incomplete and spasms can develop.
“Many people experience some recovery and then they’re told there’s nothing else that can be done. It’s often not true,” says MUSC Health ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon Sam L. Oyer, M.D. “Many people come to us years later with tightened facial muscles, spasms or trouble blinking – and we can help. It could take up to a year, but Bell’s Palsy should always get at least somewhat better.”
It’s important to seek the best fit for you in terms of treatment and it’s always a good idea to get more than one clinical opinion. It’s also important to note that not all paralysis is caused by Bell’s Palsy.
“I met a patient whose symptoms had been misdiagnosed as Bell’s Palsy. His condition didn’t improve so he sought a second opinion at MUSC Health,” says Dr. Oyer. “We determined he had cancer and, fortunately, it was still early enough to make a difference.”
If you are experiencing paralysis or spasms of the face, please visit your primary care physician immediately. It’s important to rule out causes like a stroke and begin treatment as soon as possible. If left untreated, Bell’s Palsy can lead to long-term health problems, such as facial disfigurement.
What causes Bell’s Palsy? Is it curable?
Like chicken pox, Bell’s Palsy is often caused by viral infection that we’re all exposed to at an early age. It’s common in people with reduced immunity, such as during pregnancy, cold or flu, diabetes or old age. There isn’t a definitive test to identify Bell’s Palsy, so diagnosis is determined by exclusion. MUSC Health ENT doctors will review the patient’s timeline of symptoms and treatment and may conduct nerve testing or an MRI to look for other potential causes.
While there isn’t a preventative vaccine, there are things that can be done to reduce symptoms, and everyone recovers to a certain extent. Early on, Bell’s Palsy is treated with steroids and anti-viral medication, and seventy percent of patients recover well. For the remaining thirty percent of patients, full recovery may take longer, they may experience synkinesis (facial tightness and incorrect movement of the facial muscles), or they may never regain full motion in the face.
MUSC Health Facial Plastic Surgery offers the gamut of facial paralysis treatments under one roof, including Botox injections to help with spasms, nerve and muscle tissue transfers to improve facial movement. In fact, MUSC Health is the only clinic in the region with physical therapists trained in facial paralysis recovery. At MUSC Health, every patient gets a series of photos and videos to document movement improvement. Each patient also takes a quality of life survey to screen for anxiety and depression issues and may work with an onsite mental health counselor.
“Effects of facial paralysis can change the way you see yourself and the way others look at you,” says Dr. Oyer. “The way we feel about our looks informs the way we feel about ourselves, so when I’m treating someone’s face, I’m working with their identity to some degree. It’s my job to help improve quality of life in this way.”
Dr. Oyer is Board Certified in both ENT and Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
MUSC Health ENT would be pleased to assist you or your loved ones. Please give us a call at 843-792-3531 to schedule an in-person appointment with our team. We also offer video visits that can be done from home for South Carolina residents having trouble traveling to Charleston. A video visit can be scheduled by calling 843-792-9907. We look forward to meeting you, to help you on your path to a healthy quality of life.