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Do You Know the Difference Between Bell’s Palsy and a Stroke?

Posted on April 19, 2016 by Kelly Wolford
brain stroke with pills

When a person suffers from an adverse health event, he or she relies on a doctor to provide a correct diagnosis so that proper treatment can ensue.

A delayed or incorrect medical diagnosis can have devastating consequences for the patient and his or her family. Unfortunately, a proper diagnosis is not always given.

In some situations, a doctor may mistake the symptoms of one illness for the symptoms of a different illness. As a result, the patient fails to receive the right course of treatment.

Two commonly confused conditions are Bell’s palsy and a stroke. Here, we discuss the distinctions between the two conditions, why a proper diagnosis is important and how a lawyer can help you if you have been misdiagnosed.

Two Similar – But Different – Medical Conditions

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Bell’s palsy is temporary paralysis of the face that is caused by damage to facial nerves. The symptoms of the condition can vary from person to person. Those symptoms may include:

  • Mild weakness of the face
  • Total paralysis of the face
  • Twitching on both sides of the face or the mouth
  • Drooping of the eyelid(s)
  • Drooping of the corner(s) of the mouth
  • Drooling
  • Eye and/or mouth dryness
  • Loss or impairment of taste
  • Excessive tears.

The NINDS reports that the exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown and may vary depending on the affected patient. Many scientists believe that a viral infection is one of the primary causes. As a reaction to the infection, facial nerves swell. Blood and oxygen to nerve cells, in turn, becomes restricted.

Other common complications that are associated with Bell’s palsy include:

  • Head or facial trauma
  • Lyme disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Tumors.

Although a stroke shares many symptoms with Bell’s palsy, it is a very different condition.

As the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains, a stroke occurs when oxygen-rich blood to the brain, or a portion of the brain, becomes blocked. Without the oxygen, brain cells begin to die. The longer the brain is deprived of oxygen, the more severe damage will occur. A stroke may also result from bleeding in the brain.

The symptoms of a stroke also depend on the person who is being affected and the cause of the stroke. Symptoms may develop rapidly or gradually. They may last for different amounts of time. The NHLBI reports that symptoms of a stroke include:

  • Sudden weakness
  • Paralysis of the face
  • Numbness of the face
  • Paralysis or numbness of limbs
  • Confusion
  • Trouble speaking
  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drooling
  • Drooping of eyes or mouth
  • Sudden headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Trouble with walking.

A stroke is a much more serious medical event than is Bell’s palsy. It requires immediate attention.

While imaging tests are not always used when a patient is complaining of facial paralysis in an emergency setting, using these tests may help to correctly diagnose a stroke or other life-threatening condition.

When Medical Professionals Mistake a Stroke as Bell’s Palsy

Correctly diagnosing a stroke can be life-saving, while the failure to diagnose it in a timely manner can be life-threatening for the patient. Most emergency room doctors and emergency responders get it right – but not always.

As MedicineNet.com reports, a study was done of the records of nearly 44,000 patients who had been diagnosed with Bell’s palsy at emergency room departments in the state of California.

The researchers found that, out of those patients, 0.8 percent received an alternative diagnosis within 90 days after their initial Bell’s palsy diagnosis. Typically, they were diagnosed with a brain tumor, stroke, bleeding in the brain or an infection of the central nervous system. In other words, approximately 352 patients received alternative diagnoses at a later date.

When researchers narrowed down the numbers of misdiagnosis to those patients who were suffering from a life-threatening condition when diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, the results were 0.3 percent of patients, or approximately 132.

That number may seem low when compared to a total of 44,000 patients. However, think of it another way: Each and every single one of those 132 patients who was misdiagnosed when suffering from a life-threatening condition was a real person with a real family. For these people, the misdiagnosis was likely life changing and perhaps even fatal.

What You Can Do If You Were Misdiagnosed

As you can see, it can be difficult to tell the difference between Bell’s palsy and a stroke – even for medical professionals. With that said, confusing the two conditions is inexcusable.

Medical professionals have numerous resources at their disposal – like imaging testing – which can and should be used to obtain a correct diagnosis and prevent a patient from suffering undue harm.

If you have suffered an adverse health event because your stroke (or other serious condition) was misdiagnosed as something else (like Bell’s palsy) you may have the right to file a medical malpractice claim.

How a New York Misdiagnosis Attorney Can Help You

When you file a medical malpractice claim, you will need to prove that your harm would not have occurred but for malpractice, and that the healthcare professional responsible for your diagnosis violated the standard of care owed to you.

To do this, you will need to gather evidence, work with medical experts and more. At Powers & Santola, LLP, our experienced New York medical malpractice lawyers have the resources and skill set your case deserves.

We have represented many medical malpractice clients in Albany, Syracuse and throughout New York and recovered millions of dollars on our clients’ behalf.

To learn more about your rights after a misdiagnosis has led to the harm of you or a loved one, request a free case consultation with our team. Simply call or fill out our online form today.