Each year in the UK, around 1 in 5,000 people develop Bell’s palsy, which is characterised by unilateral facial weakness of rapid onset (Rowlands 2002,Holland 2004). The condition can develop at any age, but seems to be most common in those aged between 15 and 60 years (Peitersen 1982).

In about 71% of patients, it resolves spontaneously without treatment, but 13% are left with slight facial weakness and 16% with moderate to severe weakness that results in major facial dysfunction and disfigurement (Peitersen 1982, Peitersen 2002, Ikeda 2005).  Bell’s palsy is due to inflammation of the facial nerve in the internal auditory canal, but the cause of the inflammation is unknown (Adour 1972, Gacek 2002). The condition results in an isolated unilateral lower motor neurone palsy, with impairment of all facial movements on the affected side, including blinking. Conventional medical treatment includes eye protection, drugs (i.e. corticosteroids, antivirals), surgery and physiotherapy.

References

Rowlands S et al. The epidemiology and treatment of Bell’s palsy in the UK. Eur J Neurol 2002; 9: 63-7.

Holland NJ, Weiner GM. Recent developments in Bell’s palsy. BMJ 2004; 329: 553-7.

Peitersen E. The natural history of Bell’s palsy. Am J Otol 1982; 4: 107-11.

Peitersen E. Bell’s palsy: the spontaneous course of 2,500 peripheral facial nerve palsies of different etiologies. Acta Otolaryngol Suppl 2002; 549: 4-30.

Ikeda M et al. Clinical factors that influence the prognosis of facial nerve paralysis and the magnitudes of influence. Laryngoscope 2005; 115: 855-60.

Adour KK et al. Prednisone treatment for idiopathic facial paralysis (Bell’s palsy). N Eng J Med 1972; 287: 1268-72.

How acupuncture can help you

Clinical trials suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as corticosteroids and may improve recovery in patients with Bell’s palsy, either used alone or in combination with drug treatment (Tong 2009; Li 2004). Note though that most of the trials to date have been of poor quality which allows only tentative conclusions to be reached (Chen 2010). (See Table overleaf)

Acupuncture may help in the treatment of Bell’s palsy by:

  • reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kim 2008, Kavoussi 2007, Zijstra 2003);
  • enhancing local microcirculation, by increasing the diameter and blood flow velocity of peripheral arterioles (Komori 2009);
  • nerve and muscular stimulation (Cheng 2009).

The evidence

Research

Conclusion

Reviews

 Chen N, Zhou M, He L, Zhou D, Li N. . Acupuncture for Bell’s palsy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010 Aug 4;(8):CD002914 A systematic review of the use of acupuncture for Bell’s palsy that included six randomised studies involving a total of 537 patients recruited within 14 days of onset; five studies used acupuncture and one used acupuncture plus drugs. The studies were all found to have serious methodological or reporting weaknesses (e.g. uncertain allocation concealment and loss to follow-up) and clinical differences between trials precluded meta-analysis. No trials reported on the outcomes specified for the review but instead presented frequencies for categories such as  ‘cured’, marked improvement’. The authors concluded that, while the six studies individually suggested benefit, their poor quality precluded firm conclusions.

Clinical studies

 
 Tong FM, Chow SK, Chan PY,Wong AK, Wan SS, Ng RK,Chan G, Chan WS, Ng A, Law CK . A prospective randomised controlled study on efficacies of acupuncture and steroid in treatment of idiopathic peripheral facial paralysis.Acupunct Med. 2009 Dec;27(4):169-73.

119 patients were randomly allocated to groups of acupuncture, steroid and control (conventional expectant treatment). They were assessed weekly by blinded assessors, using the House-Brackmann facial nerve grading system. The overall improvement (grade 3 or better) was 86.9% in the steroid group, 96.4% in the acupuncture group and 89.5% in the control group respectively. However, the difference in degree of recovery and speed of recovery in the three groups was not statistically significant. The efficacies of acupuncture, steroid and conventional expectant treatment (natural course of recovery) in idiopathic peripheral facial palsy (Bell’s palsy) in the study were the same with respect to the degree of recovery and speed of recovery.
Li Y et al. Efficacy of acupuncture and moxibustion in treating Bell’s palsy: a multicenter randomized controlled trial in China. Chin Med J (Engl) 2004; 117: 1502-6. A multicentre single-blind randomised controlled trial involving 480 patients with Bell’s palsy (1-90 days after onset) that compared acupuncture alone with acupuncture in combination with drug treatment (i.e. prednisolone 30mg daily for 3 days, B vitamins and dibazole) and with drug treatment alone (the control group). The outcome assessors were unaware of the interventions assigned in the trial. The outcome measures were facial function graded using the House-Brackmann scale both pre- and post-treatment at 4 weeks, and disability and psychosocial status evaluated using the Facial Disability Index. A total of 41 patients did not complete the trial and were not included in the analysis. Significantly more patients were cured (House-Brackmann grade I) with acupuncture alone than in the control group (41% vs. 28.1%, respectively, p=0.013), but not the combined treatment group (31%). In all, 95.5% were cured, or obviously improved (House-Brackmann grade II) with acupuncture alone and with combined treatment compared with 87.5% in the control group (p=0.024 and 0.014, respectively). It is worth noting that among the 314 patients followed up at 3 and 6 months post-treatment, no difference was found between the three groups, with all patients reaching grade III or better on the House-Brackmann scale.

Physiology studies (human and animal)

 
Komori M, Takada K, Tomizawa Y, Nishiyama K, Kondo I, Kawamata M, Ozaki M. Microcirculatory responses to acupuncture stimulation and phototherapy. Anesth Analg2009; 108: 635-40.An experimental study on rabbits, in which acupuncture stimulation was directly observed to increase diameter and blood flow velocity of peripheral arterioles, enhancing local microcirculation.
Cheng KJ. Neuroanatomical basis of acupuncture treatment for some common illnesses.Acupunct Med 2009;27: 61-4. A review that looked at the acupuncture treatment formulae for some common conditions, including sciatica, trigeminal neuralgia, and facial nerve palsy. It is found that, in many cases, the acupuncture points

traditionally used have a neuroanatomical significance from the viewpoint of biomedicine. From this, the reviewers hypothesised that plausible mechanisms of action include intramuscular stimulation for treating

muscular pain and nerve stimulation for treating neuropathies.

Kim HW, Uh DK, Yoon SY, Roh DH, Kwon YB, Han HJ, Lee HJ, Beitz AJ, Lee JH. Low-frequency electroacupuncture suppresses carrageenan-induced paw inflammation in mice via sympathetic post-ganglionic neurons, while high-frequency EA suppression is mediated by the sympathoadrenal medullary axis. Brain Res Bul. 2008; 75: 698-705.An experimental study on rats, the results of which suggest that suppressive effects of low frequency electroacupuncture on carrageenan-induced paw inflammation are mediated by sympathetic post-ganglionic neurones, while suppressive effects of high frequency electroacupuncture are mediated by the sympatho-adrenal medullary axis.
Kavoussi B, Ross BE. The neuroimmune basis of anti-inflammatory acupuncture.Integr Cancer Ther 2007; 6: :251-7.A review article that suggests the anti-inflammatory actions of traditional and electro-acupuncture are mediated by efferent vagus nerve activation and inflammatory macrophage deactivation.
Zijlstra FJ, van den Berg-de Lange I, Huygen FJ, Klein J. Anti-inflammatory actions of acupuncture. Mediators Inflamm 2003;12: 59-69.A review that suggests a hypothesis for the anti-inflammatory action of acupuncture. Insertion of acupuncture needle initially stimulates production of beta-endorphins, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and substance P, leading to further stimulation of cytokines and nitric oxide (NO). While high levels of CGRP have been shown to be pro-inflammatory, CGRP in low concentrations exerts potent anti-inflammatory actions. Therefore, a frequently applied ‘low-dose’ treatment of acupuncture could provoke a sustained release of CGRP with anti-inflammatory activity, without stimulation of pro-inflammatory cells.

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