Bell’s Palsy – Virus or Stress?

Now I am no doctor, medical researcher or pollster but when I hear from over 540 people who have either had or presently suffer from the illness of Bell’s Palsy and every single one of them tells me that their illness occurred during or immediately after a serious bout of stress, I would have to be seriously dim not to suggest that there is a connection.

Bell’s Palsy is a condition that can strike 1 in 60 of us at any time of life. In 93% of those 1 in 60, it will only ever happen once. In the unfortunate 7% it can recur at an average frequency of around 10 years.

It is usually a temporary facial palsy condition, causing paralysis of one side of the face. In around 1% of cases, including my own, it can strike both sides of the face at the same time (bilateral bell’s palsy) leaving a person with no facial expression whatsoever and in no uncertain terms, truly “wiping the smile off your face”.

In 50% of cases all of the facial paralysis will disappear within 3 months. In 20% this will take up to 6 months and in another 10% it may take up to a year to achieve a complete recovery..”And what becomes of the other 20%?” I hear you shout…

The healing of the seventh cranial nerve, also known as the facial nerve, can continue at the rate of about 0.5 – 1mm per day for up to around 18 months and some consultants would say up to 2 years.

After this time, it may be necessary to employ the services of a professional facial muscle trainer to “retrain” your facial muscles to work in their originally intended way. This training can take the form of manual Bell’s Palsy facial exercises or in some cases the use of an electrical stimulator, both of which can produce major improvements many years after the facial paralysis.

There are other treatments such as Botox injections and decompression surgery, that some suggest can alleviate long term symptoms such as synkenisis. Synkenisis is best described as remnants of facial paralysis or incorrect rejuvenation of the facial nerve, resulting in movements that are contrary to what was intended. In practical terms this may show as the corners of your mouth raising upon the closing of your eyelids; this being just one of a great many possible scenarios.

A number of medical consultants hold the belief that Bell’s Palsy is an illness with no known cause. In fact there are over 50 different illnesses that can cause facial paralysis and it is only when these have been ruled out that a diagnosis of Bell’s Palsy is comfortably arrived at. Thus it is known as an idiopathic facial palsy, meaning “of unknown cause”.

The most prevalent medical belief however, is that it is the reactivation of the herpes simplex virus (HSV 1) that is the cause of the illness. This is not the sexually transmitted herpes, this is the one that gives you the odd cold sore.

It must also be said here that just because you get cold sores, that does not in any way whatsoever, mean that you will get Bell’s Palsy. On the contrary, I have still never had a cold sore in my life and yet had bilateral Bell’s Palsy. So, there is no more reason to worry about getting suddenly being stricken with Bell’s palsy, than there is about losing another pound, dollar or euro on the weekly lottery.

The herpes simplex virus is seldom of any medical importance and as stated, is most commonly associated with cold sores. Your immune system usually cures it extremely well if ever it tries to show up.

Most of us do actually carry this virus around with us throughout our lives. 25% of people will never know they have it and never show any symptoms. 50% of people will have very mild symptoms at some point in life (not of Bell’s Palsy) and 25% may be diagnosed with it upon showing some noticeable symptoms (but again, not Bell’s Palsy).

When we initially contracted the virus through normal human contact as a child we may have shown no significant symptoms at all. However, once contracted, the virus remains with us in a dormant state until it can be reactivated by some future event or when we are particularly run down and our immune system has been weakened.

Without going into all of the medical terms, the resultant reactivation of the virus to cause Bell’s Palsy, means that the virus has been dormantly awaiting its moment of glory on our seventh cranial nerve and upon reactivation, causes it to inflame.

The seventh cranial nerve, on its way to the facial muscles, passes through the fallopian canal, a thin bony conduit in the ear area. Because of the inflammation to the nerve, when it is in the fallopian canal it can only inflame so much before it is in effect, crushing itself.

It is when this happens that the “crushing” effect stifles its ability to transmit the impulses that are required to activate the facial muscles and achieve facial expression and therefore, a paralysis of the facial expressions on the affected side are apparent.

Now, that being the most prevalent theory, the herpes simplex virus has been noticed as present in 60-70% of those who are diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. As early as 1970, a study by researcher Shingo Murakami identified HSV-1 as the primary cause of Bell’s palsy and several subsequent studies have consistently verified Murakami’s research.

So, if we accept all of the above theory as being correct (and I would like to ask the obvious question about the other 30 – 40% who did not have HSV-1 present) then it is the virus that has caused the actual inflammation but surely, to be able to reactivate in the first place it must have taken advantage of our physical state.

If our immune system has been perfectly capable of keeping this virus at bay since we were a child, then what has and could, allow this virus to manifest its reactivation within us, in such a way as to cause an outbreak of this fashion.

It is therefore, to our immune system that we must look for the answers.

A perfectly healthy immune system would quite happily take care of this virus’ control and restraint. Therefore it must follow that for it to break out of its cell (excuse the pun) and wreak havoc with our facial nerve, the alarm bells must draw us to the conclusion of a weak immune system at the time of the breakout.

So what depletes the strength of our immune system?

Our immune system is fuelled by the good foods and drink with which we nourish ourselves. It is aided by the sunshine and fresh air in which we bathe and breath and it is also strengthened by keeping our physical health in good order, our weight reasonable and by trying to keep a positive, calm and unworried mental outlook.

Conversely, it is compromised by a lack of the aforementioned good fuels, by illness, stress, sugar (I kid you not) and by being generally run down.

I myself, although not suffering from any illness prior to having bilateral Bell’s Palsy, would definitely agree with the other components to making my immune system extremely low, stress being the main cause of each.

I was working too hard in a thankless job whilst not looking after myself properly in the food department, due either a lack of self esteem, extreme tiredness, or a feeling that there was not enough time to devote to this eating pastime. All of which are symptomatic of being very stressed.

The doctor who first diagnosed me, when I had only one side of my face paralysed, gave me a prescription which, on top of the medicinal components, advised total rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.

Having the condition for over 4 years, I have spoken to a great deal of fellow sufferers. Every single one of them truly believes that it was a build up of severe stress or in some cases a severely stressful event, that preceded their Bell’s Palsy.

Most of these people, including myself, have taken a philosophical view of the entire event and had a really good look at our lives. I mean, if you cannot even count on your own smile, then one must search for some truths that you can indeed count upon. It is most certainly an experience that will change you entire life, and for the better, if you want it to.

Although it can be said with total conviction that stress reduces our immune systems and that a positive and calm mental outlook can actually boost our immune system’s health and responsiveness, it is always a reactive and medicinal solution that is prescribed.

More importance should be placed on the preventative skills needed to live our lives with the awareness of stress and its early symptoms, rather than to try to correct the resultant illnesses that it will nearly always produce.

It is a known fact that between 80 – 90% of attendees at doctors’ surgeries are there with a condition or problem that has its foundations firmly rooted in a build up of stress.

Is it therefore the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) or for that matter, any other virus, infection or malady, that has caused the resultant complaint, or is it the tightening grip of the tentacles of stress upon our lives and therefore our physical immunity, that has forced the condition?

There apparently is no proven cure or protection from Bell’s Palsy. Time, rest and relaxation are the only widely accepted cures.

I suggest that the instructions “To lead a life with a positive, calm and unworried mental outlook, focussed upon hope, derived from a truth that can be counted upon” should be folded into a bottle and sold as the preventative medicine for all ailments, in chemists, churches, hospitals, schools and even the workplace vending machine.

I hope that you will always have a special smile and that it will always be special, to all who have the pleasure of seeing it.

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