Commentary: George Clooney’s Bell’s Palsy and When To Go To the Emergency Room

Paola G. Rehill, MPAS, PA-C

Paola G. Rehill, MPAS, PA-C

During a recent appearance on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, actor George Clooney shared that he’d had Bell’s Palsy in high school, which could be seen on a throwback photo. “Now wait, I want to point out something, because you’re going to laugh, gonna make a joke,” said Clooney. “I have Bell’s palsy there and half of my face is paralyzed.”  

We asked Cooper’s Paola G. Rehill, MPAS, PA-C, a physician assistant with the Cooper Neurological Institute, to explain more about facial paralysis caused by Bell’s palsy.  

What is Bell’s palsy? Who does it affect, and what are the risk factors? 

Bell’s palsy is a neurologic condition that causes sudden paralysis or weakness on one side of the face. The condition is believed to most commonly occur as a result of viral infection, with a variety of viruses implicated, but it is also associated with diabetes, pregnancy, and certain vaccines. The condition is uncommon, with an incidence rate between 10-40 cases per 100,000. It occurs in patients of all ages, sexes, and races. 

How does Bell’s palsy happen? What are the symptoms, and what should someone do if they feel like their face is numb or drooping? Should they go to the emergency room? 

Bell’s palsy symptoms are typically noted to develop over several hours or even a few days. They typically worsen over this time period before they begin to improve. Patients will notice that the weakness inhibits them from making facial expressions such as smiling or closing their eyes. The weakness in the lips may cause drooling or trouble speaking. Other symptoms include pain in the ear on the affected side, tearing, and loss of taste. Patients should always go to the emergency room if they experience facial weakness, since this could also be a sign of a more serious condition such as a stroke.  

Does Bell’s palsy go away? How is it managed or treated? 

In most cases, Bell’s palsy will resolve on its own, though it may take some time – three weeks or even longer. A small percentage of patients are left with some residual weakness. There is no specific test for Bell’s palsy, but your health care provider should be able to tell if you have it by learning about your symptoms and doing an exam. The health care team might order tests to check whether you have a different medical problem that could be confused with Bell’s palsy. If you are diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, you may be given steroids (which are medications to help reduce inflammation) and antiviral medication. It is also important to protect the eye from injury. If there is an inability to close the eye, it is done with an eye patch and/or lubricating drops. 

Can Bell’s Palsy happen again? Is it a warning of a stroke?  

Bell’s Palsy is not a warning of stroke. It can, however, occur more than once for some patients.  

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