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A local high school teacher came to my office with weakness and numbness on one side of her face. This well-groomed, attractive middle-aged woman was unable to smile, frown, pout, speak, or eat with facial symmetry. She suffered from a cold, on and off, for about two months. It was not a bad cold, but it would not go away. One day in early summer, while engaged in bird watching, one of her favorite pastimes, she noticed that she could not look through her binoculars. She noticed that her eye would not open and close at will. The next day she woke with ear pain, flaccid muscles on one side of her face, and an inability to close her eye. She had difficulty speaking with clarity due to weak mouth muscles and feared she had a stroke.

She immediately saw her family physician who determined that she had shingles in her ear and developed Bell’s palsy. She was prescribed a steroid anti-inflammatory (Prednisone), antiviral medicine (Acyclovir), and a topical cream (Zovirax). Once she got over the initial fear and shock, she was grateful that her problem of facial weakness was not due to a more serious problem, such as a stroke or brain tumor. She began physical therapy and improved slowly. Her story, along with many other patients, reminded me of the need to raise awareness about cause, diagnosis, symptoms, complications and treatment of Bell’s palsy.     

Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve paralysis, occurs when the nerve that is responsible for the movement and sensation of the muscle and skin of the face becomes damaged. The end result of this damage is paralysis of the muscles and numbness of the skin on one side of the face. Typically, the first sign of this disorder is the inability to close one eye or smile on one side of the face. While this problem can occur in any age group, it is rarely seen in people less than 15 or more than 60 years of age. The good news is that most people show signs of improvement within 3-4 weeks and have complete recovery in 4-6 months. The bad news is that reoccurrence can occur on the other side of the face in approximately 10 percent of those affected.


Bell’s palsy is caused by a viral infection. The most common virus is the herpes simplex virus, the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. Other viruses that can cause Bell’s palsy are herpes zoster virus that causes chicken pox and shingles and Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, and cytomegalovirus. When one of these viruses causes inflammation to the facial nerve, it becomes swollen and irritated in the narrow tunnel of bone by the ear. As pressure on the facial nerve increases, damage progresses to the point that the muscles and skin of the face are unable to receive messages from the nerve, leading to paralysis, numbness and other symptoms.


The hallmark symptom of Bell’s palsy is sudden onset of facial muscle weakness and numbness on one side of the face. As a result, it is difficult to close the eye and smile on the weak side. Other symptoms on the affected side can include: the inability to make facial expressions, speak clearly (especially vowel sounds), diminished sense of taste, pain in the area of the jaw or ear, sensitivity of sound, headaches, and changes in production of tears and saliva.


While Bell’s palsy can occur in anyone, it is more common among those who are: pregnant, (especially during the third trimester or first week after birth), diabetic, or suffering from a cold or flu. Also, some research suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to this problem.


In mild cases of Bell’s palsy, symptoms are completely resolved within 4-6 weeks. As mentioned before, most cases resolve in 4-6 months. However, recovery for those with complete paralysis may vary. For example, permanent facial weakness, facial muscle twitching, and visual problems due to the inability to close the eye, can occur.


Contact you primary care physician immediately, because these symptoms may be associated with a more serious medical condition such as a stroke. Remember, most people with Bell’s palsy make a complete recovery, but early intervention can expedite the process. In severe cases, a neurologist may be consulted. Two commonly used medications are corticosteroids and antiviral drugs. Corticosteroids such as prednisone are strong anti-inflammatory drugs used to reduce the swelling and inflammation on the facial nerve. Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir are used to stop the viral infection that may have caused the inflammation. Studies show that these drugs, when used in combination, are most effective when administered in the first 3 days of the appearance of symptoms.

Physical therapy can also assist in the restoration of facial muscle recovery. Ultrasound with anti-inflammatory drugs, electric stimulation, massage and exercise are commonly performed. While the use of electric stimulation has limited support in the literature, a home exercise program that concentrates on facial muscles, is an essential part of the therapy program. Some simple exercises performed in front of a mirror are: raise eyebrows, bring eyebrows together, open/close eye, fill cheeks with air, suck in cheeks, smile, frown, whistle, say vowels.

Surgery, to relieve pressure on the nerve by removing bone, is rarely performed. Plastic surgery, to improve the appearance of the face, may be an option in cases with permanent paralysis.    

Sources: Mayo Clinic; WebMD

NEXT WEEK! Read “Health & Exercise Forum” – Every Monday.  This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor  in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at GCSOM.

For all Dr. Paul's articles, visit our exercise forum!

Congratulations to the enthusiastic and dedicated runners who finished the 25th Annual Steamtown Marathon yesterday. Most, if not all of you are waking up this morning with a little less jump in your step than you had yesterday.

As active people by nature, many of you will resist the logic of rest, despite the pain and stiffness in your muscles and joints. Therefore, I would like to offer some words of wisdom, based on science, to encourage you to adequately rest and allow your body to recover.


With adequate rest and recovery, an elite runner can quickly regain full form in 3-4 weeks, while an average runner may require 4-6 weeks. Meb Keflezighi, an elite American runner and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, is an excellent example of the merits of rest and recovery. However, he discovered it by accident…following the 2012 New York City Marathon, Meb developed a foot infection which required three weeks rest. With the Olympic Trials just 70 days away, Meb quickly regained his pre-injury fitness level to win the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials and join the US Olympic Team in London. It may be that his injury was fortuitous and allowed him adequate recovery time, (that he might not have otherwise allowed), preparing him for intensive training leading up to the trials.


Muscle-Skeletal System:

One of the most obvious effects of running a marathon is significant muscle and joint pain and stiffness. It will set in after you sit for a while and attempt to get up and move around. For most, it will be more pronounced the day after the marathon, as you get out of bed and limp to the bathroom. Studies show that the leg muscles, (especially the calf muscles) display significant inflammation and necrosis (dead tissue) in the fibers of the muscle. In other words, the trauma to the muscles is so severe that tissue damage causes muscle cells to die. Consequently, studies found that muscle strength, power and endurance is compromised and required significant time to recover… sometimes as long as 4-6 weeks!

Additionally, many runners report severe bone and joint pain following the race. Some studies report findings of microfractures or bone bruising from the repeated and prolonged pounding of the marathon. It is purported that the stress on the joints may be related to: weight and body type, running shoes, running style and mechanics. While not dangerous, again, it is important to respect the stress placed on the body and allow adequate healing…LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!  

Cellular Damage:

Creatine kinase is an enzyme found in the brain, skeletal muscles and heart. It is found in elevated levels in the presence of cellular damage to these tissues, for example, following a heart attack. Similarly, significantly elevated creatine kinase levels are found in the blood of runners up to 4 days post marathon, demonstrating extensive tissue damage at the cellular level. It is important to note, that these enzyme markers are present, even if a runner does not experience muscle soreness. So, adequate rest for healing and recovery is required, regardless of soreness. 

Immune System:

It is not a coincidence that the runners are more likely to contract colds and flu after intensive training or running 26.2 miles. The immune system is severely compromised after a marathon and without adequate recovery; a runner can become ill and ultimately lose more training time or will underperform.


  1. If I don’t have pain, then I did not damage my body and I can run again soon after the marathon. FALSE: As stated above, enzyme levels that indicate cellular damage to the tissues are present in the post-marathon runner, even in those without significant pain.
  2. Energy drinks with caffeine are the best way to reenergize my body and speed up my recovery. FALSE: In addition to rest, drink, drink, drink - 24 ounces of water for every 2 pounds you lose after the marathon. This is based on pre and post exercise weight. You just burned 2,600 calories so avoid diet soft drinks. You need the glucose (sugar) boost. Also, don’t drink alcohol and use minimal amounts of caffeine (the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee). First, drink plenty of water and sports drinks (Gatorade) to prevent a diuretic like caffeine from messing up your fluid balance.
  3. If I don’t run, I will lose all of my conditioning in one week. FALSE: Studies clearly show that the VO2 Max, (the best measurement of a runner’s endurance and fitness), is unchanged after one week of inactivity. And, after two weeks, the loss is less than 6% and can be regained quickly. Moreover, it is important to remember, without adequate rest and recovery, performance is comprised, not by the loss of VO2 Max, but by muscle-skeletal tissue damage, which renders the leg muscles of the runner weaker. Remember Meb Keflezighi! 

Expedite Your Recovery

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.

See all of Dr. Mackarey's articles in our Health and Exercise Forum!