Most of us have heard of Bell’s palsy – but it’s easy to be vague on the details and not know what it actually means for sufferers.

Angelina Jolie has revealed to Vanity Fair that she was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy last year. The actress says she has now successfully cured her Bell's Palsy through acupuncture.

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But as many of us don't understand the condition and as Karen Johnson, deputy CEO of charity Facial Palsy UK, says, this is a problem.

“With little research currently being done in the area of facial palsy, medical information available to the general public is often conflicting, creating much confusion and uncertainty for those affected,” she explains. “This is making life very difficult for Bell’s palsy patients, who struggle to get referred in a timely manner for appropriate treatment.”

Here’s what you need to know about the condition…

What is Bell’s palsy?

Bell’s palsy is – according to the NHS – “a condition that causes temporary weakness or paralysis of the muscles in one side of the face.” It is the most common cause of facial paralysis, occurring when the facial – cranial – nerve is inflamed or has been compressed. It means that, due to muscle weakness, a person’s face droops, often making it difficult for them to blink and close their eyes.

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What causes it?

“The exact cause of Bell’s palsy has not been established,” says Facial Palsy UK. However, it has been linked with several viruses, including the herpes virus (known to inflame the facial nerve) and the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles. It has also been connected with Lyme disease, syphilis and the virus which triggers glandular fever.

Who does it affect?

“Bell’s palsy can affect anyone at any time, although women in the last trimester of pregnancy are a higher risk group,” explains Johnson. Between 12,400 and 24,800 people in the UK are affected each year – and while most make a full recovery within two or three months, roughly 20% of sufferers do not. Research has also found that people aged 15-45 are more prone to getting it, and more incidences occur during winter.

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What are the symptoms?

As well as drooping facial features and paralysis, sufferers can also experience: earache, sensitivity to sound, loss of sense of taste and difficulty eating, drooling, dry mouth, jaw pain, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness and impaired speech.

How is it treated?

Johnson explains that treatment is drugs-based, and must be swift to be effective: “The standard treatment for Bell’s palsy is steroids and this needs to be given within 72 hours to increase the chances of a good recovery.” Physiotherapy is also thought to help aid recovery.

How can I help myself and others?

As the causes of Bell’s palsy aren’t fully understood, it is difficult to put in place preventative measures. However, there is a lot you can do to help those who do suffer from it.  Because it’s a difficult condition to conceal, it can easily affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem levels, and be psychologically upsetting. Not staring, showing support for loved ones, directing them towards Facial Palsy UK and recognising that it’s much more than just cosmetically weak muscles will do them a world of good.

Visit Facial Palsy UK to find out more. If you have any concerns about your health, always speak to your GP.

Have you or anyone you know suffered from facial or Bell’s palsy? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.