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Angelina Jolie had a rare condition, and here's what's known about it

By: LINDSEY BEVER, The Washington Post
August 1, 2017 Updated: August 1, 2017 at 6:47 am
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In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie opened up about her personal health struggles - threats of cancer that led her to have a preventive double mastectomy and then have her ovaries removed.

She said she developed hypertension and Bell's palsy, a condition she said caused her face to droop on one side.

"Sometimes women in families put themselves last until it manifests itself in their own health," she told Vanity Fair.

Bell's palsy, which affects about 40,000 people in America each year, isn't as scary as it might seem.

"Most people will go through life without having a Bell's palsy," said Lyell Jones Jr., a neuromuscular neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. "But for most patients who have it - whether or not they get treatment for it - they tend to do very well, and most patients will have a complete recovery."

Many well-known figures have battled bouts with the rare condition, including Ralph Nader, Roseanne Barr and George Clooney.

"It was the first year of high school, which was a bad time for having half your face paralyzed," Clooney told Larry King in 2006 about the time he had Bell's palsy. "It's a weird - it's one of those things, I remember what happened."

He said he was watching "The Pride of the Yankees," a film about Lou Gehrig. "And he's trying to pick up a bat, and it falls out of his hand. And the next day we were sitting in church and I was in the back of the pew and my tongue was numb. And then we would always go out to dinner, go up to Frisch's Big Boy, which is, you know, that's where everybody went for lunch after church, after Mass.

"And I was drinking and milk was pouring out of my mouth. And I thought 'Oh, my God, I have Lou Gehrig's disease.' Because you know, I wasn't the brightest kid, and eventually, your eye and everything gets paralyzed."

Bell's palsy, a sudden but temporary facial paralysis, occurs when the nerve that controls the muscles on one side of the face becomes inflamed or swollen, making them too weak to move, says a fact sheet from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Although the exact cause is not known, it has been linked to viral infections, such as the cold sore virus (herpes simplex), respiratory illnesses or the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms as:

- Rapid onset of mild weakness to total paralysis on one side of your face, occurring within hours to days

- Facial droop and difficulty making facial expressions, such as closing your eyes or smiling

- Drooling

- Pain around the jaw or in or behind your ear on the affected side

- Increased sensitivity to sound on the affected side

- Headache

- A decrease in your ability to taste

- Changes in the amount of tears and saliva you produce

Jones, the neurologist, said due to the sudden onset of facial weakness, the primary thing Bell's palsy patients fear is a stroke.

"And, to be honest, you do have to do a pretty careful clinical evaluation to make sure that it's not something else besides a Bell's palsy," he said.

Jones did caution, however, that people who experience facial weakness and have any risk factors for a stroke should seek prompt medical attention to rule out something more serious.

The NINDS says mild cases do not typically require treatment and go away on their own within several weeks; in other cases, steroids can help reduce inflammation and swelling in the nerve, and some antiviral medications can help fight an underlying virus. Physical therapy or acupuncture "may provide a potential small improvement in facial nerve function and pain," says the NINDS fact sheet. Jolie said acupuncture helped her recover.

Surgical treatment is not typically recommended.

"The large majority of folks have a complete recovery," Jones said. "It's an unpleasant memory; it's not something that affects them in the long term."

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