What is Bell’s Palsy?

Bell’s Palsy is a facial paralysis that commonly affects one side of the face. In some very rare cases both sides of the face can be paralyzed or even weakened. The exact causes of Bell’s Palsy remains a mystery. Viral infections (like cold sores, chickenpox, mononucleosis, flu… etc) can trigger an episode. Also there are predisposing factors like pregnancy or diabetes that can increase the risk of developing the paralysis. If you are concerned that you might have Bell’s Palsy it is important to be seen right away by a qualified medical professional since facial paralysis can also occur during a stroke. The medical staff at a hospital are equipped to help diagnose your facial paralysis.

How long does Bell’s Palsy facial paralysis last?

Most people regain 85% of their facial movement within 3 weeks. Full recovery will often take 3 to 5 months though some symptoms may become permanent. Treatments for Bell’s Palsy should help to restore normal movement as quickly as possible, prevent progression to permanent facial paralysis, reduce the development of motor synkinesis (inappropriate facial contractures), and prevent eye injury.

Can acupuncture help? 

The current gold standard of treatment for Bell’s Palsy is corticosteroids – a strong antiinflammatory medication. It’s important to note that this is the pharmacological treatment that has the most data demonstrating benefit. Commonly, antiviral medications are also used. There is less evidence that antiviral medications are beneficial as compared to corticosteroids. Additionally, there are facial exercises and a hyperbaric chamber as therapeutic options. Both show promising benefits.

So where does acupuncture fall under given these options? Electroacupuncture affects both the nervous system and it functions like an anti-inflammatory. So it could be argued that electroacupuncture is very beneficial for  Bell’s Palsy by reducing inflammation and stimulating pain reducing substances in the nerves. We have emerging evidence that acupuncture and electroacupuncture works from randomized controlled trials but there isn’t enough data at the meta-analysis level. So our understanding of acupuncture’s role in Bell’s Palsy is emerging with a need for more research – no different than the hyperbaric chamber, facial exercises, or antiviral medications. 

Even though acupuncture research on Bell’s Palsy is emerging there remains clear evidence that it can help. It is perfectly reasonable  that electroacupuncture would work effectively for Bell’s Palsy since its mechanism is so similar to that of the gold standard of treatment (antiinflammatory steroids). Like all neurological conditions, there are a variety of factors that can cause treatment to be less successful but by far the most limiting is waiting too long to get treatment. The sooner you can start getting treatment the better overall for your recovery.  

How many acupuncture treatments are needed?

In the clinic, when I work with a patient who has an episode of Bell’s Palsy, it is ideal to do treatments every day if possible. When we start to see improvement we can then change the frequency of appointments as we continue to stimulate the restoration of normal facial muscle activity. Typically a course of treatment is around twelve visits but that can vary depending on age and the cause.

Dr. Mark VanOtterloo is a licensed acupuncturist and Doctor of Acupuncture, located in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He is an integrative, functional medicine practitioner specializing in chronic disease and women’s health. To learn more about how acupuncture can help with your Bell’s Palsy schedule an appointment online.