Migraine May Raise Risk for Bell's Palsy, Study Suggests

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WEDNESDAY, Dec. 17, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People who experience migraine headaches may be at heightened risk for the form of facial paralysis known as Bell's palsy, a new study finds.

According to background information in the study, between 11 and 40 people per 100,000 develop Bell's palsy each year. Most of them recover completely.

Reporting in the Dec. 17 online edition of Neurology, Taiwanese researchers followed two groups of almost 137,000 adults -- one group of migraine sufferers and another group without migraines -- for an average of three years.

During that time, 671 of the people in the migraine group developed Bell's palsy, compared with 365 of the those in the non-migraine group.

Even after the researchers accounted for other factors, such as sex, high blood pressure and diabetes, the study found that people with migraines were twice as likely to develop Bell's palsy than those without migraines.

"This is a very new association between migraine and Bell's palsy," Dr. Shuu-Jiun Wang, of the National Yang-Ming University and Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taipei, said in a journal news release.

The study couldn't prove that migraines help cause Bell's palsy, but it "suggests that these two conditions may share a common underlying link," Wang said.

"Infection, inflammation or heart and vascular problems could be shared causes for these diseases. If a common link is identified and confirmed, more research may lead to better treatments for both conditions," he added.

Two migraine experts said the study is interesting, but questions remain.

"As a statistical study, it demonstrates a relationship but does not tell us why this relationship exists," said Dr. Mark Stecker, chairman of neuroscience at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. He believes that "additional study will certainly be important in trying to understand a common mechanism that underlies both disorders."

Dr. Noah Rosen is director of the North Shore-LIJ Headache Center in Great Neck, N.Y. He said, "Bell's palsy is commonly seen by neurologists, and is often considered a benign -- usually resolving -- condition, consisting of one-sided facial weakness."

According to Rosen, Bell's palsy is "sometimes mistaken for a stroke, but can be linked to certain infectious and autoimmune conditions, and generally has a much better outcome than stroke. However, there can be significant anxiety and social stigma [tied to the illness]."

He called the study "interesting," and said that any limitations in the study's methods were "offset by the large number of people studied and the strong relationship discovered."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about Bell's palsy.