There are a lot of articles out there which refer to how a brain injury can result in a reduced sense of smell. This happens when the olfactory senses (your scent detecting neurons) are damaged. As the olfactory senses are located in the frontal lobe, behind the eyes, it is vulnerable to damage in a traumatic brain injury.
But the lesser talked about symptom of this is a distorted sense of smell, where you find regular odours offensive. This is what I suffer from. This particular condition is called parosmia and can also be caused by an infection. It’s not phantom smells, but rather registering existing smells as overpowering and foul.
For me, it’s another sign of my neuro fatigue
As with all other areas of the brain, the neurons will attempt to repair themselves, and survivors can see (or should I say smell) some improvements with their sense of smell. But for me, I can hit phases of parosmia coming back to bite me. This tends to happen when my brain is becoming worn out. That might be because I’ve been in a noisy environment which has overstimulated me, or it could be something even simpler, like a lack of quality sleep. Either way, I now use it as an early sign of neuro fatigue, meaning I need a nap.
It can come on months after the injury
Don’t be surprised if the brain injury survivor in your life suddenly reports this symptom even months after their injury. This happens a lot with survivors. I think when you have recently suffered a brain injury, the brain is so busy trying to make head or tail of everything, it can’t properly acknowledge all the sensory signals that it is receiving. But I’m not a doctor so there could be other reasons for the delay in this symptom presenting itself. Either way, I think it needs to be talked about more, so families know to look out for it.
The biggest problems parosmia causes comes when eating a meal
Taste is closely linked to smell, and therefore if things smell horrible to you, chances are they’ll taste disgusting too. You could be eating what would normally be your favourite meal, but this condition ruins it. Straight after my injury, I went through a phase of preferring spicy food, which I didn’t previously. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was likely a coping method for my parosmia. Spices stimulate the trigeminal nerve, which transmits both sensory and motor signals to the brain, rather than the olfactory nerve. By activating a different nerve, spices act as a mask for parosmia, making food more palatable. This is important because we all know that when recovering from any illness or injury, we need to make sure we eat to give our bodies the energy to heal. But that becomes a real challenge when food tastes horrible to you, therefore finding a way to minimise the effect of parosmia will help brain injury survivors get the nutrition they need.
If you’re struggling with this, try smell training
For some people, parosmia can be so intense that it makes them vomit. Thankfully, I didn’t ever have it that badly, but for those who do, I can understand that you would want some help with beating this condition. Those who are currently struggling with this can become a member of the UK charity AbScent for free. It acts as a support group, but also gives valuable advice on how to retrain your sense of smell, and help you move to a more pleasantly perfumed world.