Angelina Jolie Tells Vanity Fair She Had Bells Palsy

In a revealing article in the September issue of Vanity Fair, Angelina Jolie has finally has her say about the difficulties she has had the past year. Nearly a year since her sudden breakup with Brad Pitt, Jolie and her six children have “spent nine months in a rental, basically living out of suitcases”. Four days prior to the interview, she and her crew moved into a $25M dollar,   11,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts mansion, previously owned by the epic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille:

“It’s just been the hardest time, and we’re just kind of coming up for air. [This house] is a big jump forward for us, and we’re all trying to do our best to heal our family.”

She went on to say that her children have been “very brave.” “We’re all just healing from the events that led to the filing . . . They’re not healing from divorce. They’re healing from some . . . from life, from things in life.”

But Jolie is also healing from the health costs of the past year. In addition to hypertension (high blood pressure), Jolie developed Bell’s Palsy, causing one side of her face to droop. Jolie explains: “Sometimes women in families put themselves last until it manifests itself in their own health.” Jolie underwent acupuncture, and credits it for her full recovery from the condition.

This month, Netflix will be premiering Jolie’s most recent project, First They Killed My Father. It is Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Filmed entirely in Cambodia, Jolie insisted on a Cambodian director, and 3,500 Cambodians participated in the project.

What is Bell’s Palsy?

Bell’s palsy is a form of temporary facial paralysis resulting from damage or trauma to the facial nerve. It is named for Sir Charles Bell, a 19th century Scottish surgeon who was the first to describe the condition.

The facial nerve travels through a narrow, bony canal in the skull, beneath the ear, to the muscles on each side of the face. For most of its journey, the nerve is encased in this bony shell.

bell's palsyEach facial nerve directs the muscles on one side of the face, including those that control eye blinking and closing, and facial expressions such as smiling and frowning.

The facial nerve also carries nerve impulses to the lacrimal or tear glands, the saliva glands, and the muscles of a small bone in the middle of the ear called the stapes. The facial nerve also transmits taste sensations from the tongue.

When Bell’s palsy occurs, the function of the facial nerve is disrupted, causing an interruption in the messages the brain sends to the facial muscles. This interruption results in facial weakness or paralysis.

The disorder, which is not related to stroke, is the most common cause of facial paralysis. Generally, Bell’s palsy affects only one of the paired facial nerves and one side of the face, however, in rare cases, it can affect both sides.

What Causes Bell’s Palsy?

Bell’s palsy occurs when the nerve that controls the facial muscles is swollen, inflamed, or compressed, resulting in facial weakness or paralysis. Exactly what causes this damage, however, is unknown.

Most scientists believe that a viral infection such as viral meningitis or the common cold sore virus—herpes simplex—causes the disorder. They believe that the facial nerve swells and becomes inflamed in reaction to the infection, causing pressure within the bony canal.

The disorder has also been associated with:

  • influenza or a flu-like illness headaches,
  • chronic middle ear infection,
  • high blood pressure,
  • diabetes,
  • sarcoidosis,
  • tumors,
  • Lyme disease
  • trauma such as skull fracture or facial injury.

Bell’s palsy afflicts approximately 40,000 Americans each year.  It affects men and women equally and can occur at any age, but it is less common before age 15 or after age 60.  It disproportionately attacks people who have diabetes or upper respiratory ailments such as the flu or a cold.

What Symptoms Does Bell’s Palsy Cause?

Symptoms of Bell’s palsy can vary from person to person and range in severity from mild weakness to total paralysis.  These symptoms may include twitching, weakness, or paralysis on one or rarely both sides of the face.  Other symptoms may include:

  • drooping of the eyelid and corner of the mouth
  • drooling
  • dryness of the eye or mouth
  • impairment of taste
  • excessive tearing in one eye.
  • pain or discomfort around the jaw and behind the ear
  • ringing in one or both ears
  • headachebells 2
  • loss of taste
  • hypersensitivity to sound on the affected side
  • impaired speech
  • dizziness
  • difficulty eating or drinking

Most often these symptoms, which usually begin suddenly and reach their peak within 48 hours, lead to significant facial distortion.

 How is it Treated?

Some cases of Bell’s Palsy  are mild and do not require treatment as the symptoms usually subside on their own within 2 weeks.  For others, treatment may include medications and other therapeutic options.

Recent studies have shown that steroids such as prednisone — used to reduce inflammation and swelling –are effective in treating Bell’s palsy.  Other drugs such as acyclovir — used to fight viral herpes infections — may also have some benefit in shortening the course of the disease.  Pain medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen may relieve pain.

Another important factor in treatment is eye protection. Bell’s palsy can interrupt the eyelid’s natural blinking ability, leaving the eye exposed to irritation and drying.  Therefore, keeping the eye moist and protecting the eye from debris and injury, especially at night, is important.  Lubricating eye drops, such as artificial tears or eye ointments or gels, and eye patches are also effective.

Physical therapy to stimulate the facial nerve and help maintain muscle tone may be beneficial to some individuals.  Facial massage and exercises may help prevent permanent contractures (shrinkage or shortening of muscles) of the paralyzed muscles before recovery takes place. Moist heat applied to the affected side of the face may help reduce pain.

Other therapies that may be useful for some individuals include relaxation techniques, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, biofeedback training, and vitamin therapy (including vitamin B12, B6, and zinc), which may help restore nerve function.

Have any of you been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy? Tell us about your experiences.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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