Acupuncture is a great choice for patients with Bells Palsy – I recommend acupuncture once or twice a week to speed up recovery. My patients tell me they feel an improvement within several hours of the acupuncture session, which then plateaus until the next session and then so on. Often we massage the neck and shoulders of Bells Palsy sufferers. This is because in acupuncture the meridians that nourish the face pass through the back and sides of the neck so we like to start by getting the blood moving here first. Acupuncturists have a special set of ultra fine needles kept for delicate areas like the face, and these are inserted into the affected facial muscles and slowly turned. On an unaffected person this will hardly be noticeable but often with Bells Palsy the patient will feel the needles as prickly warmth spreading across the face.
Bells Palsy is often classified as ‘Wind-cold invasion’. In Chinese medicine they often describe what they see! ‘Wind’ means it is created from something outside the body (like a virus or environmental factor) but was strong enough to break through the body’s natural defenses. Acupuncture therefore aims to strengthen the person so they can push the invasion back out again. For this reason we also advise plenty of rest and avoidance of both coffee and alcohol until the facial muscles return to normal. ‘Cold’ in Chinese medicine is constrictive and blocks movement, so again the acupuncturist tries to balance this out by creating warmth and movement in the facial muscles to get them moving again. Difficult as it may be to slow down in the modern world – if Bells Palsy strikes, taking a couple of weeks out is simply the best thing you can do for yourself to speed up recovery.
It is worth noting that that most cases of Bells Palsy are self limiting – and many people first start to notice an improvement within 2-3 weeks from the start. NICE are clear that most people will make a full recovery in 9 months – this is a general figure based on patients and not the therapies involved. So we have two groups – The first being those who do naturally make a full recovery and perhaps for them the real question should be ‘is there anything that can speed up my recovery time?’ The second group is those who do not make a full recovery and so the question is ‘can acupuncture help Bells Palsy 9 months on?’ A third question would be ‘is there anything I can do early on to minimise my chance of having long term problems?’ A review of various Bells Palsy treatments including acupuncture, physiotherapy, and medication is provided by The Cochran Database, where it is shown that the use of corticosteriods early on can lead to better outcomes long term – however using the corticosteriods more than 72 hours after onset appears to have to no significant benefit. A separate recent study compared the type of acupuncture used in Bells Palsy and found that those who received strong needling sensations in the face (compared to those who did not) were more likely to experience long term recovery.