Bell’s palsy, or idiopathic facial palsy, is paralysis on one side of your face caused by dysfunction of your facial nerve. Acupuncture is sometimes used to treat Bell’s palsy, but its effectiveness remains controversial.

Your facial nerves are a pair of nerves that allow you to control your facial expressions and functions such as eye blinking and smiling. People with Bell’s palsy develop symptoms such as:

  • an inability to close their eye on the affected side
  • a drooping eye on the affected side
  • an asymmetrical smile

The lifetime risk of developing Bell’s palsy is about 1 in 60. Most people completely recover, but roughly 30% of people have lingering complications.

Some people believe that acupuncture could help treat Bell’s palsy by relieving inflammation around the facial nerve. Although researchers have found promising results, the quality of current research is too low to draw conclusions from.

In this article, we’ll examine what researchers have discovered so far about acupuncture for treating Bell’s palsy.

The principles of acupuncture come from traditional Chinese medicine. It’s used to treat many different conditions, but its action on the human body isn’t well understood. Some researchers think acupuncture might lower inflammation by inhibiting certain molecules, causing hormonal changes, or loosening connective tissue.

Bell’s palsy occurs when your facial nerve is inflamed or compressed. The cause of Bell’s palsy isn’t known, but it’s thought that it could be caused by a viral infection, often during periods of stress, illness, or sleep deprivation.

Most cases of Bell’s palsy recover with or without treatment within 3 weeks. For some people, recovery takes up to 9 months, and about 30% of people have lingering complications. Medical treatment aims to promote the recovery process and minimize the risk of complications.

Corticosteroids are often prescribed to help lower inflammation around your facial nerve. Some people think that acupuncture may also be an effective treatment.

What researchers have found

In a 2015 review of 14 studies that included 1,541 people, researchers found higher partial or complete recovery rates in people with Bell’s palsy who received acupuncture compared with other treatments. But many of the studies the researchers analyzed were of low quality with a high risk of bias.

According to the researchers, acupuncture seems to be safe for Bell’s palsy, and no evidence of harm has been reported so far. But they couldn’t determine the overall rate of side effects and complications because many studies didn’t report them.

The researchers concluded that current evidence is insufficient to support acupuncture as an effective treatment. They also noted that the results should be interpreted cautiously because of the poor quality of studies.

Likewise, in a newer 2019 review of studies, researchers found similar results. Out of 323 studies available, the researchers found 11 were of suitable quality for analysis.

The results of these studies suggest that acupuncture is associated with increased partial or complete recovery rates compared with people who receive drug therapies. But the researchers found a high risk of bias in the studies due to poor study designs.

The researchers concluded that despite the poor quality of studies, acupuncture seems to be superior to drug therapies for treating Bell’s palsy but that more high-quality research is needed to confirm these findings.

In a 2021 review of studies, researchers investigated the timing of acupuncture for treating Bell’s palsy. They found strong evidence that acupuncture in the acute stage was associated with increased effectiveness. The acute stage was defined as the first 7 days after symptoms developed.

It’s not clear how many acupuncture sessions are optimal or how frequently acupuncture should be administered for the best results. Treatment programs in the review of studies lasted anywhere from 10 to 60 days.

It’s important to find an acupuncturist who’s credentialed and has the necessary level of training.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recommends checking the credentials of an acupuncturist before starting treatment. Most states require some level of certification or licensing to practice acupuncture, but the requirements vary by state.

Most states require a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). You can find a list of acupuncturists that hold this diploma in the NCCAOM directory.

It’s a good idea to ask a practitioner how many treatments you’ll need up front and the expected cost. Ideally, it’s best to visit an acupuncturist with experience treating people with Bell’s palsy specifically.

Medical therapies for Bell’s palsy aim to speed up recovery and lower the risk of complications. Treatment for Bell’s palsy often includes:

  • 10 days of steroid medications
  • antiviral drugs such as acyclovir or valaciclovir
  • eye drops and ointment to prevent your eye from drying out
  • using surgical tape to keep your affected eye closed while sleeping
  • physical therapy exercises to prevent the shortening or stiffening of your facial muscles
  • in more severe and long lasting cases, different types of surgical techniques may be an option

Bell’s palsy is a type of facial paralysis caused by inflammation of your facial nerve. Some research suggests that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for Bell’s palsy, but many of the available studies have been of low quality with a high risk of bias.

More research is needed to confirm the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture for treating Bell’s palsy.

If you choose to get acupuncture treatment, make sure you visit a health professional licensed to perform acupuncture in your state. It’s also a good idea to visit a practitioner with previous experience treating people with Bell’s palsy.