Actor George Clooney revealed that he had Bell’s palsy as a teenager. It turns out that he’s one of several celebrities who have also struggled with the condition.
Research indicates that Bell’s palsy stems from cranial nerve compression that may be instigated by a virus.
Clinicians can use these celebrity cases of Bell’s palsy to familiarize themselves with the disease burden and inform patient conversations.
A January 2023 interview with George Clooney on Jimmy Kimmell Live! resurfaced a laughable haircut and something far more serious: a teenage bout of Bell’s palsy. The actor revealed that he suffered from this form of unilateral, idiopathic peripheral paralysis at age 15.
At the time of his diagnosis, Clooney could count himself among the 40,000 people who, according to StatPearls research, experience a new onset of Bell’s palsy each year.
The actor’s story highlights the plight of the thousands of people who experience this somewhat mysterious condition, including some other high-profile celebrities.
Inside Bell’s palsy
Clooney (and the other celebrities in this article) are among the 15 to 20 people out of every 100,000 who experience Bell’s palsy.
The disease appears to affect all genders and races equally and it can strike people of any age, although most Bell’s palsy cases occur in people who are middle-aged and older.
Bell’s palsy risk factors include:
The cause of Bell’s palsy is somewhat ambiguous. Possible reasons cited in the StatPearls article include herpes simplex virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and varicella-zoster virus.
From a pathophysiological standpoint, a possible explanation of Bell’s palsy is nerve compression, specifically at the geniculate ganglion region of the seventh cranial nerve. The facial canal is narrow there; inflammation at this location could lead to compression and ischemia of the nerve.
This may lead to unilateral facial paralysis or weakness. Sense of taste may also change, and patients may also experience sound sensitivity. Additionally, Bell’s palsy may alter tear and saliva production, per StatPearls.
These symptoms may have spelled trouble for the actors and celebrities in this article, who use their faces and voices to earn a living.
Superstar Angelina Jolie, whose notable roles have included Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise, revealed in a 2017 Vanity Fair article that she developed Bell’s palsy in 2016. Its onset coincided with her divorce from actor Brad Pitt. Jolie credited acupuncture for her recovery.
A meta-analysis published by Medicine indicated that acupuncture may help patients with Bell's palsy. After reviewing 11 randomized controlled studies that included more than 1,200 people, researchers concluded that acupuncture was linked to an increased Bell’s palsy cure rate and total efficacy of treatment, compared with pharmaceuticals.
“However, the results should be interpreted cautiously, because of the poor quality and heterogeneity of the included studies,” the Medicine researchers wrote.
According to TV Guide reporting from the 1980s, actor Pierce Brosnan also endured a bout of Bell’s palsy. Long before he was “Bond—James Bond,” Brosnan was busy filming episodes of Remington Steele when a case of Bell’s palsy waylaid him.
Brosnan thought that this stemmed from a virus, which he caught filming some shirtless river scenes. At the time, he was working 14- to 16-hour days, which ultimately led to an on-set collapse and some much-needed rest.
Empire star Terrence Howard developed Bell’s Palsy in high school. The disease left the right side of his face paralyzed.
The New York Post reported that Howard came up with his own dangerous intervention. He purportedly cut the wire on his father’s electric razor and shocked his face daily for 5 months until sensation began to return.
Of course, this is not part of the standard of care for Bell’s palsy. Treatments typically involve 60 mg to 80 mg of daily corticosteroids for a week, according to the StatPearls research. Some patients who have severe facial nerve palsy may receive steroids and antivirals. Surgery may be an option for patients who do not improve.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
The famous composer of musicals such as the Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Evita told the Daily Mail that he experienced Bell’s palsy in 2006.
"What’s incredible is that the night before I’d been perfectly fine."
— Andrew Lloyd Webber, to the Daily Mail
Lloyd Webber said he thought a co-worker who had shingles may have been the source of the problem. Since this onset, Lloyd Webber said that he's modified his lifestyle, cutting out alcohol as well as wheat and dairy products.
Even with no lifestyle changes or treatments, Bell’s palsy resolves 71% of the time, according to StatPearls, whose researchers suggest that about 10%–12% of patients will experience recurrence with a mean latency of a decade.
Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s life has been no carefree highway. The troubadour, who composed songs such as “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzerald,” has suffered from alcoholism, an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002, and Bell’s palsy back in 1972. To conceal the condition, half of Lightfoot’s face was photographed in shadow on an album cover.
Risk factors that are linked to poor Bell’s palsy outcomes in the StatPearls article include reduction in salivation or taste on the ipsilateral side, total paralysis, and being over the age of 60 at the time of onset. Lightfoot was only in his 30s at the time and continues to tour in his 80s.
Not all facial paralysis stems from Bell’s palsy. For example, Justin Bieber suffered a bout of Ramsay Hunt Syndrome that resulted in partial facial paralysis in 2002.
In addition to Ramsay Hunt, other possible sources of facial palsy include:
The estimated rate of misdiagnosis stands at 10.8%, according to StatPearls. If the disease recurs, clinicians may also want to include Melkerson-Rosenthal syndrome in their differential diagnosis.
Symptoms include fissured tongue and orofacial edema, in addition to facial palsy. Melkerson-Rosenthal occurs more frequently in females.
If patients present with signs of facial paralysis, physicians may want to use these celebrity stories as a conversation starter to broach the subject and discuss the possibility they may have Bell’s palsy or another type of facial disorder.
What this means for you
Sometimes it takes a celebrity to highlight the burden of a disease such as Bell’s palsy that is faced by thousands of people. Healthcare professionals can use high-profile stories to glean insights into the challenges that patients face. In turn, patients can learn from these discussions about the options that are available.