Bell’s Palsy vs. Stroke: What’s the Difference?

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Bell’s palsy is a neurologic condition that causes temporary paralysis of the muscles of one side of the face (and in rare instances, both sides), resulting in drooping and weakness of the muscles. Swelling, inflammation or compression of one of the two facial nerves is responsible for Bell’s palsy.

The Difference Between Bell’s Palsy and a Stroke

The exact cause of the condition isn’t known, but many experts believe that viruses such as those that cause cold sores or meningitis play a role. Approximately 40,000 people in the U.S. develop Bell’s palsy each year. It can affect people of any age but is more common in those 15-60 years of age and those who have diabetes or an upper respiratory infection. Typically, the condition is temporary and resolves in a period of two weeks to six months, depending on the severity.

Bell’s palsy has symptoms similar to those of a stroke, which is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires prompt intervention. Consequently, it’s important to seek medical attention with any drooping of facial muscles.

Bell’s Palsy Symptoms

The two facial nerves control many functions, so Bell’s palsy can produce a number of symptoms, including:

  • Weakness, paralysis or twitching of facial muscles
  • Difficulty closing the eye, raising the eyebrow or raising the lips in a smile on one side of the face
  • Drooling
  • Trouble speaking
  • Difficulty eating or drinking
  • Changes in the ability to taste
  • Dizziness
  • Pain behind the ear or in the jaw
  • Watering in one eye
  • Dryness in the mouth or an eye
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Headache
  • Ringing in the ears

Again, a stroke is a serious condition that responds best to immediate treatment and can be confused with Bell’s palsy, it’s important to talk with your doctor right away if you have these symptoms.

Diagnosing Bell’s Palsy

The symptoms of Bell’s palsy may accumulate over a period of hours and days and typically reach their peak within three weeks. In some cases, the condition intensifies overnight while a person is sleeping, making the symptoms seem more acute when they’re discovered in the morning.

Care providers first do assessments to determine if a person has had a stroke. If they determine a stroke hasn’t occurred, other tests can be performed to confirm Bell’s palsy, including:

  • Blood test to look for diabetes or infection
  • Electromyography (EMG) test to assess the condition of the facial nerves
  • CT scan or MRI to look for nerve damage

Bell’s palsy is associated with other conditions, so the doctor may ask about or look for evidence of high blood pressure, Lyme disease, frequent middle ear infections, skull fracture or facial injury or an inflammatory condition called sarcoidosis.

Treating Bell’s Palsy

In mild cases, Bell’s palsy may resolve on its own over a period of weeks or months. However, to prevent permanent nerve damage, the steroid prednisone and antiviral medications may be prescribed in some instances. Over-the-counter medications may be recommended to provide pain relief.

While Bell’s palsy can be alarming, most people who develop the condition experience a complete or nearly complete recovery.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care in diagnosing and treating Bell’s palsy. Our 24/7 inpatient neurology and neurosurgery services, as well as our outpatient services, Home Health, physical and occupational therapy services are available to help treat people with Bell’s palsy.

You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.

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