The facial nerve is responsible for carrying electrical impulses from the brain to the facial muscles, enabling us to laugh, cry, smile and frown. When these signals are interrupted, facial paralysis occurs. This may be either temporary or permanent, and usually affects one side of the face only.
Facial paralysis occurs when the facial nerve fibers are irritated or disrupted. A number of factors can cause this, include infections, injuries, tumors, and strokes. The most common is a condition known as Bell’s palsy. Facial paralysis can affect anyone, but it is most prominent in people over the age of 40 or those with diabetes, upper respiratory disorders, weakened immune systems, and pregnant women.
Bell’s palsy is often to blame for facial paralysis. It affects 30,000 to 40,000 Americans every year, and occurs when the facial nerve becomes inflamed.
Symptoms of this disorder include: muscle weakness or paralysis, facial droopiness or swelling, difficulty blinking or closing one eye, twitching of facial muscles, trouble speaking, eating and drinking, sensitivity to sound, ear pain and drooling.
Other conditions that can cause facial paralysis include physical trauma, stroke, Lyme disease, Sarcoidosis, Moebius syndrome, herpes and tumors.
Facial nerve problems are diagnosed through a series of tests. These might include hearing and balance tests to measure the response of the auditory nerve; tear, taste and salivation tests to determine the severity of nerve lesions; electrical nerve stimulation tests to check for facial muscle responsiveness; and imaging tests (CT scan or MRI) to visually determine whether facial nerve problems are being caused by infection, fractures or tumors.
Treatment is dependent upon results of the patient’s test, and designed to eliminate the source of the nerve damage. Antibiotics are prescribed for infections, while steroids can be used to combat swelling. Decompression surgery to remove the bone surrounding the facial nerve can help in some situations. Physical therapy is often recommended to help with long-term results.
Most facial paralysis is temporary and goes away completely within a few months. Patients may experience lasting side effects that include changes in taste, muscle and eyelid spasms, and facial muscle weakness.