Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Friday, 16 September 2005 13:16 UK

'I had to eat my food through a straw'

By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Shan Thomas
Treatments vary from GP to GP

When Shan Thomas's face started to droop and she could not work her mouth properly, she knew she had Bell's Palsy.

She booked an immediate appointment with her doctor, but was surprised to find that she was offered no treatment for the condition, which had had left her in absolute agony.

Shan was told that, because opinion was so varied on whether any treatment could affect the outcome of Bell's Palsy, some GPs offer no treatment of at all preferring to wait until the condition eases in its own time.

Others advocate either steroids or anti-virals, which can have side effects.

Bell's Palsy is a condition which paralyses half of the face. It was first identified in the 19th century, but its cause still remains a mystery.


Sufferers are affected by a sudden paralysis, characterised by the swelling of a nerve in the face, which can leave them looking severely disfigured and in pain.

The condition affects about one in 60 people and can strike at any age, but pregnant women, diabetics or people with flu, colds and other upper respiratory illnesses are most susceptible.

Some people thought I had a stroke because of the way I looked
Shan Thomas

Most people make a complete recovery in three to six weeks, but for one in 20 there is no significant recovery at all.

Shan was left in absolute agony her face was so distorted that she found it impossible to eat and everything that had to been pureed and drunk through a straw.

"I had just come back from a holiday in Wales when my mouth started to droop and the next day I had a terrible pain behind my ear.

"I could not speak, I could not say anything. The pain down my left side was horrendous," she said.

Dr Fergus Daly
If people are feeling something is not right with their face then they should contact their GP
Dr Fergus Daly
The worst thing was not being able to shut my eye. You do not realise how that feels until it happens to you. It becomes very dry and painful.

"I could not eat anything in public because my mouth would not work properly so I had to push the food around my mouth with my fingers.

"Some people thought I had a stroke because of the way I looked.

Bell's Palsy is very painful, but it is also very disfiguring."

When her doctor asked if she would like to get involved in a new trial to test the efficacy of the different treatments Shan, aged 54, from Glenrothes in Fife, leapt at the chance and enrolled.

She will not know until the trial is finished which regime, if any, she was offered, but she said she hoped the trial would bring definitive results to help others with Bell's Palsy.


Dr Fergus Daly, co-ordinator of the study into Bell's Palsy, aims to monitor 500 patients in a bid to see which treatment regime is the best.

He said: "People do feel anxiety when they get this and some discomfort. Some people even worry that they are suffering from a stroke."

And he said: "It is in the patient's best interest to seek help as soon as possible so if people are feeling something is not right with their face then they should contact their GP."

But he said, because opinion was so split, patients were not getting a uniform regime. "Anecdotally we know that when a GP gets a new case of Bell's he will be running up and down saying 'what do we do, does anybody know?'

"The NHS is also anxious for a cost effective analysis about which is the best option."

So far 260 people have signed up for the Scottish study, which is being led by the University of Dundee.

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