In a newly released interview with Vanity Fair, actress Angelina Jolie opens up about her struggle with Bell’s palsy, a rare and often mysterious neurologic condition.
The Oscar-winning actress, who split from longtime husband Brad Pitt in late 2016, expressed concern that in caring for her six children post-divorce, she let her own health decline. Jolie reported turning to acupuncture for relief from Bell’s palsy and noted that she has since made a full recovery.
Here’s what you need to know about the rare neurologic disease.
Bell’s palsy is a condition that leads to paralysis of the facial nerve, the peripheral nerve responsible for facial movement. Sufferers develop one-sided facial weakness — generally over a matter of hours or days — that can result in eyebrow sagging, inability to close the eye and drooping at the corner of the mouth. Other symptoms may include sensitivity to loud noise, ear pain on the side of paralysis and an impaired sense of taste. Because of the physical abnormalities the condition causes, many affected people experience significant psychological distress and restrict their social activities. The condition is relatively rare, affecting only about 40,000 Americans each year.
Pregnancy is the most well-established risk factor. Bell’s palsy occurs three times more frequently in pregnant women than in the general population, particularly in the third trimester and the first week after delivery. People with diabetes also appear to be disproportionately affected by the condition. But when it comes to race and gender, there are no apparent differences in risk.
The exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown. Most scientists believe there is a strong link between Bell’s palsy and viral infections such as influenza, herpes simplex or respiratory tract infections. Conditions that have been associated with Bell’s palsy include high blood pressure, immunodeficiency, sarcoidosis, tumors, Lyme disease and trauma, such as skull fracture or facial injury.
The treatment of Bell’s palsy may vary based on the severity of symptoms. Bell’s palsy generally has an excellent prognosis, and recovery — even without treatment — is fairly common. However, sometimes medications and other therapeutic options are necessary. The goals of treatment are to improve facial nerve function, reduce nerve damage and protect the eye. Most common treatment includes prednisone, antiviral agents such as acyclovir — normally used to treat herpetic infections — and eye care to prevent corneal drying, abrasion and ulcers.
Other therapies such as facial massage or acupuncture may provide improvement with facial nerve function and pain, albeit to a small degree.
On rare occasions, surgery may be needed to help relieve symptoms.
Devika Umashanker, M.D., is a recent graduate of the Obesity Medicine fellowship at Weill-Cornell Medical College. Nicole Van Groningen, M.D., is a hospital medicine fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.