Bell’s palsy—the flaccid paralysis of part or all of one side of the face—can be a very frightening experience for patients. It usually appears suddenly, often overnight, and can cause sufferers to have difficulty carrying out essential everyday functions such as eating, drinking, and even closing their eyes.
While Bell’s palsy can sometimes cause long-term problems for patients, it is usually not that serious, and in most cases a patient will recover within a few weeks, with the affected muscles returning to normal function within 3 to 6 months. Massage therapy can play a crucial role in assisting this process, helping to stimulate the affected area.
Bell’s palsy arises due to damage or inflammation of the seventh cranial nerve, which controls facial movement. Facial nerve damage causes the signals sent from the brain to be interrupted, resulting in paralysis to some of the muscles it controls.
Bell’s palsy can be brought on by a number of things. The most common causes are viral infections, most notably herpes simplex 1, a common virus which causes cold sores and has been found to be among the most frequent triggers of the condition. Bacterial infections such as Lyme disease can also lead to Bell’s palsy, while patients have also developed the condition as a side effect of multiple sclerosis, HIV, and Gullain Barre syndrome.
Because the facial nerve needs to perform several different functions, it has a very complex structure, and travels through several different pathways from the brain stem to the facial muscles. As a result, therapeutic massage diploma students will find that Bell’s palsy afflicts the face in varying degrees, ranging from mild weakness to total paralysis, and can affect either all or part of the muscles on one side.
Bell’s palsy can restrict a wide range of facial movements, including flaring the nostrils, raising the eyebrows, raising the corner of the mouth, and lip movements. The paralysis of muscles around the mouth can be especially difficult for patients, as they may have trouble eating and drinking. The condition can also cause the tear ducts, salivary glands, and taste buds to function irregularly.
In addition, Bell’s palsy sufferers are often unable to completely close their eyelid, which creates problems with sleeping and blinking, and increases the risk of permanent damage to the eye. Long-term impairment of some facial muscles is also possible, with some patients never fully recovering a complete range of movement. The unaffected side of the face may also experience some tightness and spasms as a result of the condition.
Massage can potentially play an important role in Bell’s palsy recovery, helping to maintain circulation and muscle tone in the affected area, which can lessen the chances of long-term complications. Furthermore, while Bell’s palsy itself is not especially painful, therapeutic massage school students may encounter patients who experience pain, stiffness, and hypertonicity in the surrounding structures of the affected area, such as the neck and shoulders, as a result of compensatory patterns developing from the condition.
RMTs treating patients with Bell’s palsy will usually favour Swedish massage techniques, such as compression and kneading around the face and surrounding areas, and may also look to stretch and exercise the muscles around the mouth and eyes in order maintain elasticity and increase the patient’s chances of returning to their full range of motion.
OVCMT offers student outreaches specifically for patients with neurologic conditions, like Bell’s palsy. This prepares students for the varied presentations with high quality, real world experience.
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