Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell, and traumatic anosmia is the loss of this sense due to physical injuries, usually from facial or head trauma.
This trauma may be either in the form of a brain injury that impacts the portions of the brain where smells are sensed, or an injury to the olfactory nerve that transmits smell-related sensory information from the smell receptors in the olfactory mucosa to the olfactory bulb, the structure in the forebrain involved in the sense of smell.
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How Anosmia Can Occur
Trauma to the olfactory nerve most often results from a fracture of the ethmoid bone that separates the roof of the nasal cavity from the floor of the eye sockets. This bone is fairly fragile and can be fractured by a blow to the face, such striking a steering wheel or dashboard in a motor vehicle collision (especially if an airbag fails to deploy) or by facial injuries in a slip-and-fall or trip-and-fall incident.
Who is Affected by Anosmia?
Only 2 percent of people under 65 suffer from a loss of smell. Over 65, the percentages increase substantially. Loss of smell is more likely in men than in women. At all ages, women have a better sense of smell than men. While the loss of the sense of smell isn't ordinarily considered dangerous or debilitating, it can actually have a major impact on a person's life. The sense of smell has a very "direct" connection to the brain, and it is also an important component of the sense of taste (explaining why food has less flavor for someone with a head cold).
Further, most of our most precious memories are keyed to the sense of smell. Smell and deep emotions are both activated from the limbic system of the brain. When smell diminishes, our most precious emotional memories are lost as well. The loss of smell can also affect someone vocationally. Imagine a gas lineman or cook who is unable to smell.
When considering the loss of enjoyment of life that is a component of an injury victim's "general damages," an injury that removes one of our senses and significantly impedes another of our senses must surely be recognized as resulting in a very significant loss. If the loss of sense of smell has resulted from bruising of the sensory cortex in the brain, then there may be partial or full recovery over time. If, however, the loss is due to damage to the olfactory nerve, recovery of the sense of smell is much less likely.
There is, unfortunately, no good treatment to improve the chances of recovery. Nonetheless, there are experimental treatments that show some success. Most options deal with ways to accommodate the loss, such as varying food textures, temperature, and spices in order to introduce a variety in sensations that has been lost along with the sense of smell. Obviously, there are also some safety issues involved with the loss of sense of smell, especially the inability to smell smoke or leaking natural gas. Installing detectors in the home is critical for these safety considerations.
Photo by Alina Vilchenko from PexelsEditor’s Note: This page has been updated for accuracy and relevancy [cha 3.30.20]