Bell's palsy can strike without warning

May 29, 2013 6:44:50 AM PDT
Patients may notice tingling, trouble speaking and then a look in the mirror reveals half of the face looks different.

An estimated 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with Bell's palsy.

As Healthbeat reporter Sylvia Perez shows us- it is not life threatening, but can be life altering.

The good news is that even though it can be embarrassing and uncomfortable, Bell's palsy usually gets better on its own.

But in rare cases the paralysis may persist long enough to cause lasting problems.

A suburban family recently found this out and wants others to know that this is a condition to watch carefully.

You may have to look real close now to find anything unusual with this teenager's beautiful face.

But nearly one year ago, Audrey Rex was diagnosed with Bell's palsy.

"Truthfully I thought I was having a stroke at first 'cause I had no clue, never heard of Bell's palsy," Rex said.

It usually begins without warning and affects just one side of the face.

Bell's palsy occurs when the nerve that controls muscles on one side of the face becomes swollen or irritated and stops working properly.

It's not known for sure what causes this nerve swelling, but a virus is suspected.

In most cases, the paralysis goes away on its own or gets better with oral steroids.

But in 10 to 15 percent of cases, after several weeks there is no change.

That's what happened to this 15-year-old.

"Everybody said wait, wait, wait and it was a situation where we knew nothing than to wait," said Deborah Rex, Audrey's mother.

But Deborah Rex's motherly instincts kicked in and she started to worry. It was going on six weeks and the right side of her daughter's face was not getting better.

After doing her own research, she found a specialist at Loyola University Medical Center.

The family was shocked to learn the future of this teenager's face might be in jeopardy.

"You don't want to wait too long- meaning three months- because the facial muscles like other muscles begin to shrink and atrophy," said Dr. John Leonetti, head and neck surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center.

Dr. Leonetti says in some cases surgery is needed to free the swollen nerve so it can start healing and facial muscles can move again before damage is permanent.

He also uses an electrical stimulator to send a current through the nerve, which he says is helping speed recovery.

"It's like we are jump starting the nerve," said Dr. Leonetti.

Rex had the surgery and to her family's delight, just about a week later, there was movement.

The Rex family also credits intense physical therapy after the procedure for Audrey's steady recovery.

Dr. Leonetti encourages anyone who has been diagnosed with Bell's palsy and is not seeing any improvement within a month to find a specialist to double-check the diagnosis and keep an eye on the progression.

Loyola University Medical Center

Bell's Palsy - NINDS - National Institutes of Health

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