Bell’s Palsy

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Purpose of Review: Bell’s palsy is a common outpatient problem, and while the diagnosis is usually straightforward, a number of diagnostic pitfalls can occur, and a lengthy differential diagnosis exists. Recognition and management of Bell’s palsy relies on knowledge of the anatomy and function of the various motor and nonmotor components of the facial nerve. Avoiding diagnostic pitfalls relies on recognizing red flags or features atypical for Bell’s palsy, suggesting an alternative cause of peripheral facial palsy.

Recent Findings: The first American Academy of Neurology (AAN) evidence-based review on the treatment of Bell’s palsy in 2001 concluded that corticosteroids were probably effective and that the antiviral acyclovir was possibly effective in increasing the likelihood of a complete recovery from Bell’s palsy. Subsequent studies led to a revision of these recommendations in the 2012 evidence-based review, concluding that corticosteroids, when used shortly after the onset of Bell’s palsy, were “highly likely” to increase the probability of recovery of facial weakness and should be offered; the addition of an antiviral to steroids may increase the likelihood of recovery but, if so, only by a very modest effect.

Summary: Bell’s palsy is characterized by the spontaneous acute onset of unilateral peripheral facial paresis or palsy in isolation, meaning that no features from the history, neurologic examination, or head and neck examination suggest a specific or alternative cause. In this setting, no further testing is necessary. Even without treatment, the outcome of Bell’s palsy is favorable, but treatment with corticosteroids significantly increases the likelihood of improvement.

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