I was traveling to Atlanta with two guys I was writing about, and as we grabbed breakfast before the second leg of our drive, my weird-face feeling intensified. Then my right eye began to ache, and a sudden fear iced my spine.
I stepped outside the restaurant to stare at my reflection in the car window, and I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I couldn’t move the right side of my face, and my eye ached because I couldn’t close it. The parking lot started to swim, and I willed myself not to faint.
“Something’s wrong with my face,” I told the guys haltingly. “I have to go to the emergency room when we get to Atlanta.” But they insisted on taking me immediately in Greensboro. I’m glad they did.
“My face is paralyzed, and I can’t blink. I think I’m having a stroke,” I told the receptionist at the Moses Cone Urgent Care Center, though it all felt so surreal. I’m only 44, and I’m healthy!
“You are either having a stroke or you have Bell’s palsy,” the receptionist said as an EMT ushered me to the back. Turns out I had Bell’s palsy.
Bell’s palsy, which affects perhaps 40,000 Americans a year, is characterized by acute inflammation or trauma to the seventh cranial nerve, disabling the muscles of one side of the face. This can cause anything from slight weakness in those muscles to total paralysis sometimes resulting in a face that looks melted. The inability to smile and blink are classic symptoms.
The cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown, but theories include a herpes virus, bacterial infections and facial misalignments that increase pressure on the nerves. And it’s more common in diabetics and women in the third trimester of pregnancy.
Eight-five percent of those with Bell’s palsy have complete or near complete recoveries, often without treatment. But 15 percent are left with permanent damage ranging from mild to severe. And for up to three months, the time it typically takes nerves to begin to regenerate, no one can tell you which group you’ll belong to.
The urgent-care doctor immediately put me on a 10-day course of high-dose steroids to bring down the nerve swelling. She also patched my unblinking right eye, which, left uncovered, could get scratched or sustain permanent damage. I couldn’t pucker or fully chew, and even my eyelashes pointed downward toward my cheek (I reminded myself of the “Sesame Street” character Mr. Snuffleupagus), but my face wasn’t visibly drooped. Still, the eye patch, which I had to wear continuously, was dramatic. My eye ached constantly, and I kept it filled it with lubricant and taped it shut every night.