A couple minutes into a short flight from New Orleans to New York awhile back, I took a sip of water and could only feel the rim of the bottle on the left half of my top lip. That had never happened to me on any other flight. I figured it would pass.
Then the numbness gradually spread up the right side of my face, and I was tempted to shout, “LAND THIS PLANE IN A FIELD! PART OF THE RIGHT SIDE OF MY FACE IS NUMB!”
Fortunately, I was brave enough not to demand that the plane land because I got scared.
I asked two of the flight attendants whether any other passenger had ever complained about experiencing facial numbness on one of their many flights. They could tell I was freaked out, and -- trying their best to pretend it was normal -- they stared at each other until one said, “Yeah... yeah... it just means you’re dehydrated?”
They gave me some water and asked me to sit back down and try to relax.
I went back to my seat, drank my water and not-so-relaxingly thought about how flying for long periods of time poses the very unlikely risk of developing a blood clot that can lead to a fatal pulmonary embolism. Then I felt a pop in my right ear. Was that an embolism?!
In about two minutes, I could feel my face again. I was still worried something serious might be wrong with me, but not so worried that I would pay for the plane’s Wi-Fi to find out.
After landing, I found a Yahoo Answers forum about how divers lose feeling in their faces when resurfacing due to pressure changes. That was a refreshingly comforting diagnosis for an internet symptom search, but I wanted to talk with a real doctor instead of going down the WebMD rabbit hole that leads to you diagnosing yourself with ALS.
I found out later that it’s not necessarily that big of a deal if half your face goes numb on a flight. As weird as that sounds, I was more surprised at how hard it was to find someone who'd ever heard of that happening.
I spoke to a friend’s fiancee, who is a flight attendant. She wasn't aware of anyone’s face going numb, but she explained that flight attendants always offer water to nervous or angry passengers because that’s pretty much the only thing they can do.
I didn’t have an answer, but at least I'd learned a flight attendant secret!
I made an appointment with my doctor. All he said was, “Weird!" And then, "But if your face feels fine now, then everything is probably OK.” (All I get for my copay is to hear the word “probably”?)
Finally I looked online for longer than two minutes and found a Scottish study titled “Facial Paralysis During Air Travel: Case Series And Literature Review” from the October 2012 edition of the Journal of Laryngology & Otology. I guess my doctor isn’t a subscriber?
According to the study, facial numbness can occur on flights when pressure in the middle ear increases and pushes on a facial nerve, causing a temporary loss of sensation. Symptoms alleviate when pressure is restored, which can take minutes (in my case) or sometimes days (yikes!).
I emailed two of the study’s authors, Drs. Kim Ah-See and Sangeeta Maini, to ask about this condition. Not only were they nice enough to respond, but apparently I wasn’t the first person to contact them after discovering their article while trying to figure out what was wrong with their face.
MTV: What percentage of travelers experience facial paralysis?
Drs. Ah-See and Dr. Maini: Not commonly reported -- very likely underreported though.
MTV: Should people inform their doctor if they experience this?
Doctors: Depends on degree of symptoms as variable.
MTV: Does the numbness always occur on just one side of the face?
Doctors: Not yet reported bilaterally.
MTV: Are there any conditions that may make people more susceptible to experiencing this?
Doctors: Possibly eustachian tube dysfunction or a dehiscent facial nerve.
MTV: My numbness only lasted for a few minutes. How long does it normally last in others?
Doctors: Very variable.
MTV: If someone experiences numbness repeatedly, are there any longterm negative effects?
Doctors: Not usually.
MTV: Are there any ways to reduce the risk of this happening in the future?
Doctors: Possibly avoid flying with a URTI (upper respiratory tract infection).
MTV: I have only experienced this once, and I flew with a cold. Is it possible it was caused by sinus congestion?
Doctors: Yes -- possible.
I’ve flown several times since then, and have never had this problem again, but I do spend most of the flight touching my face, worried that it may be happening. As comforting as it is to know it’s not a big deal, I prefer flying when I can feel my whole face. But if it happens to you, try not to freak out too much. You’ll be fine in a couple minutes (or days).