Bell’s palsy affects 1 in 5,000 people each year in the United States, and 1 out of 70 throughout a lifetime. When it strikes, this relatively common neurological disorder causes one side of the face to become weakened, or paralyzed. (1) Common signs include drooping on one side of the face, drooling, impaired speech, and other symptoms that are also associated with stroke.
Believed to be caused by a viral infection, conventional treatment often includes the use of antiviral medications, corticosteroids, and in rare cases, surgery. Often, symptoms of Bell’s palsy will resolve within weeks or months; only in rare cases will there be subsequent episodes or long-term side effects.
Natural treatments focus on combatting stress, fighting active viruses, and triggering a response in the damaged nerve tissue to heal itself. While viruses are contagious, the resulting weakness and paralysis are not considered contagious. However, if someone in your home is diagnosed, it is wise to boost your immune system to help prevent becoming ill with the same virus.
What Is Bell’s Palsy?
Bell’s palsy is a condition where partial or total weakness or paralysis of the facial nerve occurs. It may develop suddenly, or develop more gradually over a period of 24 to 48 hours. The first noticeable sign may be slurred speech or a crooked smile as the nerve is responsible for controlling facial expressions, taste, eye tearing, and even hearing. (2)
For some, it arrives with the onset of facial numbness or a tingling sensation. And for others, it may occur in concert with weepy eyes, sensitivity to sounds, change in taste, headache, and possibly pain behind the ear.
Sometimes referred to as facial palsy, researchers are not certain as to the cause; however, Bell’s palsy is linked to a variety of viral infections including herpes simplex, Epstein-Barr, and many others. (3) The symptoms typically start to resolve within a few weeks, and most people recover completely within six months. In rare cases, symptoms may continue for life, or it may reoccur.
Signs and Symptoms of Bell’s Palsy
As many of the signs and symptoms of Bell’s palsy present similarly to those of a stroke, it is imperative that you seek medical attention immediately to rule out a more serious and potentially life-threatening condition.
Many people experience an odd, Novocain-like numbness and paralysis in the lips, face and eye — like you’ve just left the dentist’s chair. In addition, the most common symptoms include: (4)
- The onset of weakness or paralysis on one side of the face that occurs suddenly, or over a period of 48 hours.
- Facial drooping in the corner of the mouth
- Drooling and changes in amount of saliva produced
- Increased sensitivity to sound
- Pain around the jaw
- Pain behind the ear
- Decreased ability to taste
- Changes in quantity of tears produced
- Inability to close an eyelid
Causes & Risk Factors
While a cause has not been identified, most medical professionals agree that the symptoms of Bell’s palsy are a result of one of the following viral infections:
- Herpes simplex (cold sores and genital herpes)
- Herpes zoster (chicken pox and shingles)
- Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis)
- Respiratory illnesses
- Rubella (German measles)
- Influenza B
- Coxsackievirus (hand-foot-and-mouth disease)
Bell’s palsy can strike at any age. Ethnicity and genetics have not been found to increase risk, except for those with recurrent episodes, where researchers believe there may be a genetic predisposition. Additional risk factors include: (5, 6)
- Pregnancy, especially during the third trimester
- Respiratory illness, flu, or a cold
- Multiple sclerosis
- Myasthenia gravis
- High blood pressure
- Recent trauma
- Environmental toxins
When you have symptoms of Bell’s palsy, your medical team will ask a variety of questions to help them with a definitive diagnosis. Be prepared to answer questions about medications you are currently on, any recent illnesses you’ve experienced, foreign travel, and family experience with this condition. Your physician may have MRI, CT or EMG tests run to confirm nerve damage and to rule out other causes of the weakness or paralysis. (7)
Once diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids, antiviral drugs, and physical therapy. Previously, decompression surgery was recommended; however, this procedure may lead to permanent hearing loss and have other non-reversible side effects. For individuals with long-lasting symptoms, plastic surgery to correct facial nerve damage may be recommended. (8)
If blinking is not possible because of the weakness or paralysis, you are susceptible to corneal abrasions, and damage to the retina, which may permanently affect your vision. Your physician may prescribe artificial tears, protective eyewear, an eye patch and lubricating ointments to protect your eyes. Use these products as instructed and report any soreness, pain, discharge or redness in the eye immediately.
13 Natural Treatments for Bell’s Palsy
1. Eye Care.
If one of your eyes does not close, it is imperative that you protect it as the doctor recommends. Wearing protective glasses during the day, an eye patch at night, and using hydrating eye drops can help prevent long-term damage. (9)
2. Moist Heat.
Many find that a warm cloth may help resolve pain and discomfort. To relieve tension and promote restful sleep, add one or more of my favorite essential oils for anxiety like lavender, rose, ylang ylang or chamomile. Repeat the warm compress whenever pain reappears, or you need to relax.
Ask your physical therapist for massage techniques that you can do at home. Many patients find gentle massage of the face can ease symptoms and discomfort. In addition, ask for a referral to a licensed massage therapist with experience in Bell’s palsy treatment and book an appointment for not just the face, but for the whole body as the benefits of massage therapy include inflammation reduction, stress and anxiety relief, and improved immune system functioning. (10, 11)
According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture stimulates nerves and muscles, providing relief to patients. (12) In fact, many experience improvement after just one or two treatments. The key is to find an acupuncture practitioner in your area with expertise in treating Bell’s palsy. The sooner you can begin acupuncture sessions, the better.
5. Vitamin B12.
Associated with nerve growth and reduction in inflammation, vitamin B12 may be more effective than prescribed steroids, according to a small study from 1995. Patients in the study were given vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) injections, steroids, or vitamin B12 injections and steroids. Complete recovery was significantly shorter in the vitamin B12 group with the mean recovery time of just two weeks, in comparison to nearly 10 weeks for those on just steroids. (13)
In addition to enjoying vitamin B12-rich foods like grass-fed beef and beef liver, sardines, wild-caught fish, cottage cheese and eggs, adding a high-quality B12 supplement may help your recovery. In the study, the B12 injections were given directly into the damaged nerves. Talk to your physician about injections and whether you are a candidate for this treatment.
6. Vitamin B6.
Associated with healthy nervous system function and eye health, ensuring you are getting enough vitamin B6 is imperative in any Bell’s palsy treatment plan. As B6 is water soluble, supplementation is not typically recommended; it is far better to consume vitamin B6-rich foods like free-range turkey breast, grass-fed beef, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and chickpeas.
Found in every cell of our body, zinc is an essential trace mineral that must be a part of every Bell’s palsy treatment plan. Used for 1,000s of years to heal wounds, boost immune system response, and support healthy thyroid function, it is also a proven treatment for colds, certain respiratory illnesses, and viruses. (14) Adding zinc-rich foods to your diet like lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef, chickpeas, cashews and others can help you heal quicker from the virus or underlying condition causing your symptoms.
8. Meditation and Relaxation.
Relieve muscle tension and chronic pain with guided meditation, yoga, regular exercise and deep breathing exercises. Some studies show that stress may exacerbate symptoms, and there are some reports that chronic stress may lead to relapses.
9. Castor Oil Compress.
Used for 1,000s of years to improve circulation, prevent the growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and to support lymphatic function, castor oil compresses may help to spur healing by enhancing blood flow to the affected areas. Gently warm a tablespoon of castor oil and massage into your face. Cover with a warm damp washcloth, and leave it one for 20–30 minutes. Repeat the castor oil compress twice a day until the symptoms have abated.
10. Bell’s Palsy Exercises.
A physical therapist can provide you with personalized facial exercises that can improve the brain-to-nerve functioning. Simple exercises include wrinkling your nose, smiling wide, frowning, opening your mouth wide, raising eyebrows, winking and blinking your eyes can help to promote healing. Do your exercises a couple of times a day for best results.
Used for decades to treat a wide array of ailments and conditions including stress, insomnia, chronic pain, and muscle tension, there is evidence that supports biofeedback therapy as a Bell’s palsy treatment. Researchers believe that electromyographic feedback improves motor function of facial muscles, helping patients return to normal. (15)
Locate a therapist in your area by searching The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Inc.’s practitioner directory on their website.
One of the strongest anti-viral herbs available, echinacea boosts immune system function, reduces inflammation, and fights viral infections, including those commonly linked to this condition. (16) Select a high-quality liquid Echinacea supplement for best absorption. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service indicates that for immune system function, the proper dose is 10 milligrams per one kilogram of body weight, for a total of ten days. (17) Use an online calculator to determine the best dose for you.
Another outstanding antiviral herb, elderberry has been proven to reduce the duration of colds, lessen flu symptoms, fight sinus infections and respiratory infections – all conditions that are linked to common symptoms. (18, 20) A wide variety of elderberry products is available including teas, syrups, ointments, lozenges, and pills. Elderberry is considered safe. However, it should not be used by individuals taking laxatives, TheoDur, some diabetes medications, diuretics, immune-suppressing drugs including Prednisone, and those undergoing chemotherapy.
Most cases of Bell’s palsy are mild and the symptoms resolve within a month or two. However, potentially serious complications are possible. In the most severe cases, total paralysis of the affected area may continue, causing irreversible damage to the facial nerve.
For some people, involuntary contractions of muscles may also occur, and not resolve. Also, partial or complete blindness in the eye on the affected side may occur. (21) In addition to Bell’s palsy, facial weakness or paralysis can occur with Lyme disease, genetic disorders, brain tumors, stroke, ear infections, and physical trauma making it imperative that you seek medical attention at the onset of the symptoms.
Bell’s Palsy Key Points
- Bell’s palsy impacts one side of the face, causing weakness and/or paralysis.
- For most, symptoms resolve within a month or two; only rarely are they permanent.
- It is likely caused by a viral infection like herpes simplex, Epstein-Barr, Rubella, and others.
- Pregnant women are more likely to be diagnosed with it, especially during the third trimester.
- It is not contagious, although the underlying viral infection may be.
- Boosting immune system response with antiviral herbs is essential.
- As many of the symptoms mimic symptoms common with stroke and other serious medical conditions, it is imperative to seek medical attention immediately at the onset of symptoms.
Natural Treatments to Help Bell’s Palsy Symptoms
- Try acupuncture as it stimulates nerve function.
- Vitamin B12, B6, and Zinc are all linked to speedy recovery.
- Moist heat can help pain and discomfort.
- A gentle facial massage can help alleviate symptoms and discomfort.
- Protecting the eye, if you cannot blink, is one of the most important things during recovery to prevent permanent eye damage.
- Meditation and relaxation can help chronic pain and tension.
- A castor oil compress may help encourage healing by drawing blood flow to the affected area.
- Personalized facial physical therapy exercises can help improve nerve function.
- Biofeedback therapy may help motor function of facial muscles.
- Echinacea and elderberry supplements can help improve immune system function.