Angelina Jolie shared in an interview with Vanity Fair that she recently developed Bell's palsy, due to damaged facial nerves. Thanks to acupuncture, Jolie says she was able to completely recover. "Sometimes women in families put themselves last, until it manifests itself in their own health," Jolie told Vanity Fair in regards to her condition. So what exactly is Bell's palsy, and how serious is it?
"Bell's palsy is a type of facial paralysis and it affects the facial muscles on one side of the face," says Jessica Zwerling, MD, MS, director of the Memory Disorders Center, Montefiore Health System. Bell's palsy typically impacts the cranial nerve seven, which controls a lot of facial functions, like furrowing your brow, smiling, or closing your eyes, Dr. Zwerling says. The condition is named for Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who discovered the facial nerve and how it relates to the condition, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "Bell's palsy can include anything from weakness, loss of the ability to close the eyes, drooping of the eyelids, changes in taste, and some patients report that they have discomfort behind their ear," she says.
It's unclear exactly what causes Bell's palsy, but Dr. Zwerling says that it can be associated with a viral infection. "It's very common, especially in pregnant women compared to not pregnant women, or patients who are immunocompromised, like a diabetic patient," she says. "In some cases it can be associated with Lyme's disease." But the thing about Bell's palsy is that it's often confused with other more serious conditions that cause facial paralysis, like a stroke or brain tumor, she says. "In patients that have weakness on one side of their face, it doesn't mean that they have Bell's," she says. So before you can start a treatment plan, it's important to make sure the underlying cause is clear.
There's good evidence that steroids can treat Bell's palsy, because they reduce swelling and inflammation, Dr. Zwerling says. Antiviral drugs can also shorten the course of the disease, and your doctor might suggest taking an analgesic for the pain, according NINDS. "One of the most common things that happens with Bell's palsy is that, because of the inability to close the eye at nighttime, there's a risk of having injury or ulcerations on the eye," Dr. Zwerling says. Usually eye drops can be helpful to protect the eye, she says.
As for Jolie's claim that acupuncture cured her Bell's palsy? Dr. Zwerling says there isn't an established medical guideline that points to acupuncture as a tried-and-true treatment for Bell's palsy. "It could work, but there isn't anything formally written per the American Academy of Neurology based on evidence-based trials," she says.
Bell's palsy normally goes away within two weeks, and most people have complete recovery within three to six months, according to NINDS. If you do experience any type of facial paralysis, it's important to see a doctor. "Bell's palsy is a treatable phenomenon, but we make sure we recognize other signs that could be related to stroke," she says. "Seek immediate help and let doctors rule that out."