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Can acupuncture help restore sense of smell?

Q:  I have lost my sense of smell after a car accident years ago, but I can still taste foods and such. How come? Smell and taste are connected, doctors have told me if you lose one, you lose both, so why can I still taste?

A:  As the NHS website on anosmia (loss of sense of smell) says http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anosmia/Pages/Introduction.aspx around 80% of the taste of food depends on the sense of smell, but this does leave a residual 20% which does mean that food does have a taste. As we understand it, the sense of taste is largely confined to much more basic distinctions between sweet, salty, etc, but there are cases where people with no sense of smell appear to be able to make finer distinctions. The NHS
website mentions a number of potential causes for loss of the sense of smell, and one of them, physical damage or obstruction, may be relevant if there has been some damage to your nasal passages which means that the smells are being diverted by an unusual route. However, it is more likely that there has been some neurological damage, although without knowing the detail of the accident that is hard for us to say.

As far as the use of acupuncture to treat anosmia is concerned, we have been asked this question a number of times, and our answer has always been:

Google is a massively powerful search facility, and if you google 'acupuncture anosmia' it looks as though there are a number of studies which give cause for hope. If you look carefully, however, you will see that there is but one study http://aim.bmj.com/content/21/4/153.long which is frequently quoted, generating a number of secondary references. This study, what we call an n=1 case study because it is the report of a single case, is important because it suggests that there may be something worth looking at in the use of acupuncture treatment. The weakness of n=1 studies, of course, is that they are not designed to test acupuncture, and the positive outcome could
have arisen for any number of reasons, especially since the case study can provide no evidence for the sudden onset of the problem.

That is not to say that acupuncture treatment is not worth trying. The use of Traditional Chinese medicine involves a great deal of questioning and examination to determine the state and flow of the energies of the body, called 'qi', and the state of the organs which are responsible for all of the functional aspects of the body. Even where there is no obvious cause from a conventional medical point of view, it is rare for a symptom to stand alone in Chinese medicine other than where it derives from a blockage. In
this case, if the blockage is removed, the function is restored. We strongly suspect that this is what happened in the case study, and blockages of this kind can sometimes occur for no obvious reason.

Generally speaking, though, a pattern of disharmony will generate a number of symptoms or changes in function, not all of which are clinically significant from a
conventional perspective, and these may point t specific imbalances affecting Organic function. Note that we capitalise the word 'Organ' - what we understand
by this in Chinese medicine is a great deal more than a physical unit in the body. The Chinese understanding of an Organ embraced functions on all levels, body mind and spirit, and whenpractised properly Chinese medicine can legitimately claim to be holistic.

The best advice we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you for advice on whether they think that acupuncture treatment may be of benefit, and to
discuss briefly with you the other aspects of your health which may indicate wider patterns which in turn may link to your problem. That is not to say that there may not be as simple a treatment as the one described in the paper, and one of the points used has the Chinese name 'Welcome Fragrance' suggesting that it may have a direct bearing on the sense of smell. You would certainly not do any harm. However, we would be more likely to look at this as a functional disturbance and be looking at other factors in the system which might point to a treatable pattern.

There is not much more that we can say than this. From a Chinese medicine perspective, however, the functions of taste and smell are assigned to specific, and different, parts of the system, and if there has been a functional disturbance in one it may not necessarily mean a loss of function in the other. It may be interesting to see what a practitioner can find, because if either function has been disturbed there will be other confirming evidence.

Another treatment option, if acupuncture treatment does not present itself as a good choice, is cranial osteopathy. There is a very close association between good neurological function and a healthy structure in the head and spine, and accidental damage some distance away from a faculty can nonetheless affect it.

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