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Breaking down Bell’s Palsy: 6 years later, our Mary King takes a closer look at her diagnosis

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Six years ago this Friday, Mary King went from reporting the news on a Friday morning, to having complete paralysis on the right side of her face by that night.

A trip to the ER would rule out a stroke, but it introduced her to the words- Bell’s Palsy.

In sharing her journey then, she quickly heard from people all over the world who had or were experiencing Bell’s Palsy, and she has continued to receive emails to this day.

However, six years later, doctors rarely pinpoint exactly what causes the condition, and there’s no definite cure. She took those questions to local doctors where she also learned why we still don’t know a lot about the condition. She also learned that because she’s pregnant, her odds of getting the condition are possibly even greater than before.

“The symptoms start very suddenly, and they should reach their maximum within the first three weeks,” Dr. Katie Dahlburg said. The Lexington Medical Center Neurologist was examining pictures of King’s episode with Bell’s Palsy which started June 1st in 2012.

“We see kind of what we expect to see here, the smile is a little more crooked here and there’s a little less movement in the face,” she said pointing to the picture of King taken seven days after the onset of her Bell’s Palsy.

But for each of the 40,000 Americans affected each year, what causes the 7th cranial nerve to be damaged and the extent of facial paralysis can be different.

“The facial nerve travels from the back of the brain or your brain stem, up through your face to provide the muscle tone and movement in your face,” Dr. Dahlberg said. “It’s just a very tiny isolated nerve and when that’s affected (inflamed or compressed) by a virus or inflammation or infection it can react in a way that causes it to not function appropriately.”

King was less than two months from her wedding day when she experienced facial paralysis and was diagnosed, and she would quickly learn there’s no cure or quick fix, just treatments doctors hope will be effective. The same is still true today.

“The treatments for Bell’s palsy are most effective within the first three days of your symptoms beginning,” said Dr. Dahlburg. “Mainstay treatments are oral steroids like prednisone because there is a thought that viruses may contribute to Bell’s Palsy and in some cases and especially more severe cases an anti-viral will be used in addition to the steroids.”

So why six years later is there still not a lot known about the cause of the condition?

“There is still research going on for Bell’s Palsy, but it is limited because in the world of neurological illness, there are so many things that are potentially fatal or life-limiting,” said Dr. Dahlburg. “So a lot of the resources are funded to that direction. But there are certainly still studies going on to better understand what causes Bell’s Palsy and what may predispose certain people to the condition.”

While Bell’s Palsy doesn’t discriminate, people with diabetes are more likely to get it. At King’s latest checkup appointment for her pregnancy, she also learned pregnant woman are three times more likely to get the condition.

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