Bell's palsy is a temporary paralysis of facial muscles, usually on one side of the face. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this condition is three times more likely to occur in pregnant women than in the general population. Although the condition can be frightening (many patients initially believe that they have had a stroke), and its symptoms distressing, the palsy is not a symptom of an underlying condition, and does not pose a risk to the fetus.
What is Bell's Palsy?
Each side of the face has a facial nerve (also called the seventh cranial nerve), that lies in canal-like bone that runs from the skull, beneath the ear, to the facial muscles. The facial nerve directs movement of the facial muscles. Bell's palsy occurs when one of the two facial nerves has been injured or impaired.
The primary symptom of Bell's palsy is paralysis on one half of the face. This usually manifests itself through weakness or twitching of the affected side of the face, or a drooping eyelid or corner of the mouth. Other symptoms include drooling, a dry eye or mouth, excessive tearing in one eye, an impairment of taste, dizziness, difficulty eating or drinking, hypersensitivity in the ear of the affected side, and facial distortion.
Causes of Bell's Palsy in Pregnant Women
No one knows for sure why pregnant women are disproportionately likely to develop Bell's palsy. One theory is that women in late pregnancy are more susceptible to viral infections, particularly herpes simplex I, that are believed to trigger Bell's palsy. Another theory is that the increase in blood volume and fluids during pregnancy causes swelling in the facial nerve and the nearby tissues, which leads to compression of the seventh facial cranial nerve.
The non-pregnant population with Bell's palsy is typically treated with steroids or antiviral medications, which are believed to decrease the inflammation and swelling of the facial nerves. However, pregnant women rarely undergo treatment as the use of steroids during pregnancy is believed to be unhealthy for the fetus. Pregnant women with Bell's palsy should be monitored carefully, however, as the condition is linked to the life-threatening condition of pre-eclampsia.
The prognosis for pregnant women who develop Bell's palsy is generally good. According to emedtv.com, most pregnant women fully recover from their symptoms within six months after diagnosis. However, it is the extent of the nerve damage that ultimately determines recovery time. Women who have suffered from extensive damage may never completely recover from their symptoms.