My Battle with Bell’s Palsy: Parts 1 (Symptoms) and 2 (Diagnosis)

(This post was originally written on June 22, 2014 with the intention to post when the time was right. Seven months and a week or so later, I’ve decided to share. I have very few pictures because we were so terrified. As you can see from this post, most of the ones I have were taken at night because I was curious to see what was happening. I didn’t spend much time in the mirror those first few weeks and let the camera focus on Frances and Ellie versus myself. In hindsight, I wish I had done documented more so that I could have better helped others but at the time, it wasn’t really on my mind.)

PART 1: The Bells Palsy Symptoms and Onset

I debated whether or not to call this post “battle” or “blip” since in the grand scheme of life, the 4 to 5 weeks that my face was seriously affected by Bell’s palsy versus the amount of time others have had to live with it really was just a tiny snippet of time. Still, and for those who have lived through it or lived with it, each day that your face doesn’t work feels nothing short of a lifetime.

Bell's Palsy Day 4 Selfie Raising my eyebrows
Bell’s Palsy Day 4 Selfie
Raising my eyebrows

I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy on February 3, 2014, when my newborn daughter, Frances, was just 6 days old. During the last few months of her pregnancy, I battled high blood pressure (as I had with my first daughter) so on the evening of my diagnosis, when my blood pressure shot sky high (180/110ish) and my face stopped working, I truly thought I might be having a stroke.

[Holley 2/3/15 side note- I’ll be sharing my experiences with and learnings about Bell’s palsy throughout this series of posts. However, for those unfamiliar with Bell’s palsy, it is a paralysis in the muscles on one side of the face caused when the facial nerve (roughly located in front of the ear where the jaw and cheekbone connect) becomes inflamed.]

The day I was diagnosed was not much different than the other 5 days of her life—sleep, nurse, change diapers, repeat. My mom had just left my house around 5pm when I went out to whistle in the dogs. However, I wasn’t able to whistle. I was having some tingling and twitching in my face and I realized I was unable to pucker my lips. I started wondering what in the world was going on. I knew I had felt a bit off all day—slight headache, a bit dizzy, extra tired, bee sting feelings in my face, eye twitching, cranky, etc—but I didn’t think much of it since I was so incredibly fatigued as any new mother would be. The inability to whistle certainly threw me for a loop but when I looked in the mirror a few minutes later, I noticed my right eye drooping and unable to close, the right side of my forehead not wrinkling the way it normally does, and the right side of my mouth not holding a smile. The overall feeling emotionally was very surreal and extremely scary. I also had intense pain and ringing in my right ear. I sat down, tried to relax for a few minutes and then took my blood pressure (I have a cuff at home since I had to monitor my blood pressure during both of my pregnancies). The number was sky high—I don’t recall exactly now but somewhere around 180/110 or maybe even a little more. It was around that time (7pm-ish) that my husband, Brent, got home. We called my OBGYN and were instructed to go immediately to the emergency room.

Thankfully, our parents live close and Brent’s parents were able to quickly make it to our house to keep the girls. I’ll never forget just how eerily strange and surreal the feeling of packing up your breast pump and heading to the emergency room because your face no longer works was. I really was having one of those, “what the heck is going on” moments.

Another Day 4 Selfie in the Dark...trying with all my might to wrinkle my forehead and scrunch up my nose
Another Day 4 Selfie in the Dark…trying with all my might to wrinkle my forehead and scrunch up my nose

PART 2: The Diagnosis

Once we made it to the emergency room, it was quite the hurry up and wait scenario (as to be expected). Fortunately, they got me triaged quickly only to verify that my blood pressure was indeed still super high. We then waited back in the freezing cold lobby for what seemed life forever. (Side note: Frances was born during the mega snowstorm that shut down the south—I know…even an inch of snow shuts down the south but this was the granddaddy of them all.) We were there so long, in fact, that I had to set up shop on the bathroom floor to pump—not fun! Let’s just say that the milk was immediately discarded (such a loss of liquid gold!).

Long ER story short, I finally made it back where they took chest x-rays, a CT scan and an EKG to determine that what we were afraid may be the worst, a stroke, had indeed not happened. PRAISE THE LORD! By this point, the meds had gotten my blood pressure under control but the ability to move my face was continuing to decline. At that point in time, I remember thinking it was the left side of my face not working but the whole thing was tingly and nothing was moving where or how it should. I’ll never forget how mad…make that furious and highly ticked…I was at the ER doctor when he told me that I could go home (at 2am) and was “just developing a nice case of Bell’s palsy.” Well no kidding, doc, thanks! Let me tell you, if you’re ever going to tell someone potentially life changing news, don’t shrug it off like it isn’t a big deal. Selfishly, I immediately thought, worried, and wondered what would happen to my face. Would it be “stuck” for lack of a better word like this forever? Would my clients not hire me or cancel our contracts because they didn’t want a spokesperson who didn’t have a functioning face? Is it going to get worse or spread to both sides? Will it go away? Is there anything to reverse it?” All of these questions and more flew through my mind after his les ze fare diagnosis and casual exit. At this point, there was nothing more to do except go home and wait until 8am to call my OBGYN.

[Holley 2/3/15 side note—I can still to this day hear his smug little voice and his whatever, deal with it shrug and it makes me almost physically ill. Sure, it may sound selfish but until you’ve been in the shoes of someone that just got completely disregarded despite the fact that their face no longer functions and they have pain worse than childbirth in their ear, then you’ll understand.]

Bell's Palsy selfie--4 days after onset
Bell’s Palsy selfie–4 days after onset
Attempting to smile

The difficult thing about Bell’s palsy is that it is almost impossible to determine what causes the onset. Bell’s palsy is triggered when the facial nerve in the ear becomes inflamed or damaged as a result of a virus in the body becoming active. This is usually caused when the body undergoes a tremendous stress like the flu, pregnancy, child birth, a car accident, divorce, loss of a loved one, etc. The best way I was ever able to describe the onset is that it is similar to shingles.. The virus was dormant in my body but once it became active, it wreaked havoc. I had heard that Bell’s palsy was often diagnosed in pregnant women so to be diagnosed post partum was a bit unusual. However, based on speculation from a few doctors, the combination of my high blood pressure, some complications during child birth, the stress of the snowstorm and having Ellie (my 2 year old) stranded at school, and just being pregnant in general may have offset it. Once the facial nerve is damaged or dies, it takes at least 2 weeks to (hopefully) regenerate and little no movement is expected before then.

The following day, a completely freaked out (and exhausted) me headed to my OBGYN to determine next steps….

Check back on the blog later this week for the remaining parts.

Remaining 3 Parts:
Part 3: The Doctors and Specialist (to be posted Wednesday, February 4, 2015)
Part 4: The Recovery (to be posted on Thursday, February 5, 2015)
Part 5: Bell’s Palsy Tips and Takeaways (to be posted on Friday, February 5, 2015)

Feel free to share and pin these posts and pictures to help spread awareness about Bell’s palsy. As you’ll read in upcoming posts, starting the right meds immediately is one of the keys to regaining facial nerve regeneration and, hopefully, movement.

*Disclaimer: Please note that as a registered dietitian I have extensive background in researching, reading, and interpreting scientific literature. However, the information that I share about medications, therapy, etc. is based on my own experiences and should not be used to self diagnose or self treat. If you have Bell’s palsy or think you may have it, please seek a medical professional. This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Holley Grainger Nutrition, LLC disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.