Q: One side of my face stopped working; I was told I have Bell’s palsy and that there isn’t anything I can do about it. Is that true? —D.V., Spokane, Wash.
A: Bell’s palsy is an acute inflammation of the facial nerve, whose pathway goes from deep in the brain to various places in the face. This big cranial nerve makes some pretty sharp turns to get to its various destinations, including the eyebrows, eyelids, nostrils, and the “smile” muscles. The complex, winding anatomy of this nerve makes it vulnerable to compression, and there is very little room to spare in case of swelling or irritation. Pressure on this nerve typically causes one-sided temporary paralysis of the muscles that help you raise your eyebrows, close your eyelids, flare your nostrils, and smile. When attempting these movements, the facial expressions on the unaffected side seem grotesquely exaggerated by contrast.
Typically, this is not a painful syndrome, but it can cause very dry eyes. Most people with this condition, which can last from three days to six months, get relief from using an over-the-counter saline tear replacement. Assure yourself that this will pass. Bell’s palsy is not uncommon and is more likely to arise during times of physical or emotional stress. Get more sleep,
eat more vegetables, exercise, and avoid extra commitments.
Although the exact cause is unknown, some clinicians believe Bell’s palsy has a viral etiology: a herpes-like virus has been suspected. High dose lysine (500 milligrams, 4 to 6 times daily for 10 days) is sometimes given to thwart the replication of the herpes virus, which, if successful, shortens the course of the infection. I have not found this to be a reliable aid, whereas acupuncture almost always provides significant relief. A high-potency “stress” B-complex supplement with at least 50 milligrams of B’s 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 and 2,000 micrograms of B12 provides critical nerve nutrition. You can also ramp up the “calming” part of the nervous system by supplementing with 1 to 2 tablespoons of lecithin daily (mix in yogurt or applesauce).
Q: Can trigeminal neuralgia be cured? What can be done to alleviate symptoms? —C.L., Juneau, Alaska
A: Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a different problem with the facial nerve, typified by bursts of intense pain that can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. It is important to see a doctor to make sure a tumor or aneurysm isn’t causing the nerve compression. A mix of different metal dental fillings has been documented to occasionally be the cause of TN; however, most often, no cause is found for TN.
In terms of natural therapies, start with a topical capsaicin cream with at least 3 percent capsaicin. Patch test on a very small area first, as capsaicin can actually increase pain for a few days before decreasing it. Follow package directions too—most capsaicin creams need to be applied 3 to 4 times daily. Alternately, you could try a blend of DMSO and emu oil, about ¼ teaspoon of each, worked together and applied to the painful areas. If that doesn’t help, try GABA supplements, about 2,000 milligrams daily. GABA promotes a calming effect on the nervous system. Also, try reducing your calcium intake and increasing your magnesium intake. Ideally, you should get about 500 milligrams of calcium by supplement and the rest (up to 1,000 milligrams) through diet. Calcium causes muscle contraction, while magnesium allows muscles to relax. Aim for a roughly equal amount of calcium and magnesium. Stop using salt on your food for a while too. Pain signals work by a sequence of mineral displacements across cell membranes: many pain medications work by temporarily inhibiting the transfer of calcium and sodium across nerve cells. Acupuncture and trigger-point injections can also help.
Another option is low-dose herbs that mitigate pain, including Jamaican dogwood and aconite. Unlike most herbs, these potent nervines can actually cause harm if ingested in high doses. Please don’t self-medicate with these herbal analgesics: seek out a naturopath or herbalist. Herbal pain remedies are surprisingly effective and have very little addictive potential. The main reason to choose an herbal approach to health challenges is because our bodies recognize the molecular configurations of natural substances. Therefore, these medicines typically do not create a new set of problems, which is often the case with drugs.