Acupuncture has proven to be a very effective treatment for Bell’s Palsy, especially when treatment is begun within the first two weeks of diagnosis. Patients with Bell’s Palsy who receive acupuncture treatment within the first two weeks will experience restored circulation, increased muscle function and reduced numbness as early as after six to eight visits. For some individuals, four treatments within a one-week period have fully restored the patient’s facial muscles and facial nerve function. The sooner the Bell’s Palsy patient undergoes an acupuncture treatment, the sooner and more complete the recovery.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Bell’s Palsy affects approximately 40,000 Americans each year. Bell’s Palsy is the most common disease of the facial nerve; it affects women and men equally, although the incidence is higher in diabetics, pregnant women, and individuals who have the common cold, influenza, or other upper respiratory illnesses. Bell’s Palsy is a sudden form of facial paralysis resulting from damage to the VII (facial) cranial nerve. Cranial nerve VII controls most facial muscles connected with the eye, mouth and jaw, and also controls the function of certain salivary glands and tear glands.
The onset of Bell’s palsy is typically sudden, with maximum facial weakness developing within the first 48 hours. Although it usually occurs on only one side of the face, about 1% of cases involve complete facial paralysis. Symptoms include a sudden weakness or paralysis on one side of the face, causing it to droop, with decreased ability to close the eye, difficulty moving facial muscles on one side of the face, tingling around the lip area, drooling from one side of the mouth, headache, and generalized numbness on the affected side of the face. Excess or decrease in tearing and drooling may also occur. In some instances, there may be pain behind the ear or jaw, ringing in the ear(s), increased hypersensitivity to sound, and loss of ability to taste. Because of the muscle weakness and possible numbness, eating and drinking can be very difficult. The degree of paralysis is dependent on the amount of irritation or compression of the facial nerve.
Though the preponderance of cases resolve themselves within several weeks and about 80% recover completely within 3 – 6 months, 15% of patients experience chronic symptoms of facial paralysis, some experiencing complications including irreversible damage to facial nerve, difficulty or inability to close the eye, and numbness or tingling in the affected area.
While the cause of Bell’s palsy has not been determined, there are indications that viruses such as herpes simplex (which causes mouth sores) and herpes zoster (the chicken pox virus which leads to shingles), and other latent viruses are responsible for the inflammation of the facial nerve. Herpes simplex virus has been found in saliva as well as muscle biopsies and the tears of Bell’s palsy patients at significantly higher rates than in control groups (Kaygusuz, Godekmerdan et. Al. 2004). One study (Furuta, Fukuda et. al. 1998) found that approximately 50% of Bell’s palsy patients show signs of the virus compared to approximately 19% of the normal population.
Western medicine treatments for Bell’s Palsy include antiviral drugs, prednisone and corticosteroids, as well as surgery in certain cases.
In traditional Chinese Medicine, this condition is called Zhong Feng, which literally translates to ‘Wind Attack.’ It is believed that Bell’s palsy is caused when Wind and Cold invade the meridians, muscles and tendons of the face. This frequently happens when the immune system is deficient and the body’s defenses are weak, for instance, when someone has a cold or the flu. The wind-cold attacks the Shaoyang (Liver, Gall Bladder) and Yangming (Stomach, Large Intestine) channels as well as the tendons and muscles. This can happen when a patient is exposed to wind, as in sleeping near an open window or an air conditioner, when driving with the windows down, or going on a boat when the winds are strong … Because of the individual’s deficient immune system, they are more vulnerable to outside sources, causing the immune system to produce an inflammatory response in the affected area which results in swelling of the surrounding tissues and obstruction of the normal function of the nerves and vessels (the facial nerve). As a result, there is an obstruction of qi (chee), vital energy, and blood in these areas that leads to malnourishment of the tendons and muscles. The lack of nourishment to the local area can cause symptoms of numbness and tingling, which are common signs of qi and blood deficiency in Traditional Chinese Medicine. To summarize, it is believed that Bell’s Palsy is caused by exposure to wind which, coupled with a deficient immune system, can cause inflammation in the affected area and obstruct the flow of qi.
The goal of the acupuncture treatment is to expel the Wind-Cold from the meridians, improve the circulation of Qi and Blood to nourish the muscles, and restore nerve and muscle function. The treatment also enhances the body’s immune system, strengthening the body’s defenses.
When acupuncture has been initiated within three days post-onset, in 684 cases of facial nerve paralysis, 100% of patients were cured or there was marked improvement (Liu 1995). Other studies (Gao, Chen, 1991) revealed that 80% of cases that were treated at more than two months post-onset, and 83% of severe cases, were cured or had excellent effects with acupuncture treatment.
Bell’s Palsy is a physical and emotionally debilitating condition in which conventional medicine has limited efficacy. The immune system has produced an inflammatory response which obstructs the normal function of the nerves and the function of facial nerve VII, resulting in numbness and paralysis. Chinese medicine has effectively treated conditions such as Bell’s Palsy for centuries.