Earlier this week, 28-year-old Canadian musician Justin Bieber announced to the world that he has a rare syndrome that causes partial facial paralysis.
“I have this syndrome called Ramsay Hunt syndrome. As you can see, this eye is not blinking. I cannot smile on this side of my face. This nostril will not move,” he said in an Instagram video that garnered over seven million likes, “I wish it weren’t, but obviously my body is telling me I need to slow down.”
In order to “get back to 100%”, the two-time Grammy Award winner postponed the next concerts of his tour to recuperate.
“I will improve,” he said. “I have hope.”
What is Ramsay Hunt Syndrome?
Ramsay Hunt syndrome occurs as a result of reactivation of a viral infection, according to Dr Charles Nduka, consultant plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgeon in Brighton, England.
“Many people will have heard of chickenpox and chickenpox can cause reactivation of the virus in the form of shingles which is a rash that will form on the body,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “If this rash occurs near the facial nerve, it can cause a sudden onset of facial paralysis, often related to pain around or behind the ear.”
People who develop Ramsay Hunt syndrome usually have another problem at the same time that causes their immune system to suppress, according to Dr Nduka, who is also co-founder of the health charity Facial Palsy UK.
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Patients with the syndrome will often notice that their eyes become dry and they are unable to keep fluid in their mouth.
“The symptoms described by Mr. Bieber are classic for facial paralysis,” said Dr. Nduka. “Just brushing your teeth and trying to spit out the toothpaste can be very difficult if one side of your face is paralyzed.”
Ramsay Hunt syndrome has an annual incidence of 3.2 to 4.2 cases per 1,000, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).
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After watching the musician’s video, Dr Nduka said he saw signs of early recovery in Bieber. To treat the syndrome, patients are usually treated with steroids and antiviral drugs, he said.
Retired Canadian politician Olivia Chow said she was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt syndrome in 2013.
About 75% of patients with the syndrome who receive early treatment are expected to make a full recovery, he added.
“I frequently see patients who are in the entertainment business with facial paralysis and they have this very specific problem because of their livelihood,” Dr Nduka added.
Antiviral drugs such as valacyclovir (also known as Valtrex), aciclovir (formerly known as acyclovir, also known as Zovirax) or famciclovir (also known as Famvir) are usually prescribed for seven to 10 days when Ramsay Hunt syndrome is suspected, according to Facial Paralysis UK.
The effectiveness of the treatment, however, depends on time, says the CMAJ.
Five out of 100,000 people develop Ramsay Hunt syndrome each year in the United States, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).
Most cases affect older people, especially those over 60, and are extremely rare in children, NORD said.
Derick Wade, neurological rehabilitation consultant and visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, told Sky News that recovery time can vary widely.
“If a nerve is damaged in this way, it can recover in some people very quickly, within days or weeks, and in others it can take several months. So it’s a very unpredictable affair,” he said.
— With Associated Press & Reuters file
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