A new study found that a person’s inability to smell could be a sign that their multiple sclerosis (MS) is progressing.
For people with progressive MS, the rate of progression is unknown, a fact that frustrates both medical experts and people with the disease.
Changes in the sense of smell could be related to other illness or issues, or could be age-related. But for a person with MS it may mean that a relapse is coming.
So, finding tools to help doctors track progression is important for both disease management and quality of life.
Linking MS and sense of smell
The results of the study suggest that olfactory dysfunction could be due to central nervous system damage caused by demyelination.
That means the sense of smell might be a marker for disease progression in MS patients.
It is known that olfactory issues can come on strong in early MS or can flare up during relapses.
One patient in the study showed significant dysfunction during an acute relapse and then a significant improvement in a follow-up test one year later.
The sense of smell has also long been used in sensory evoked potential testing to monitor the progression of MS, even though some doctors feel this option is not as reliable as visual evoked potential testing.
Why the study is important
The three-year study involved 20 people with MS.
It’s important, according to Dr. Jaime Imitola, director of the Progressive MS clinic at The Ohio State University, because researchers looked at some specific information that could help further research and the application of using smell to help understand disease progression.
Imitola added that the discovery of better biomarkers would allow patients and medical professionals to better anticipate disease progression and be proactive in treatment. And that a tool like this could be used clinically to help people with MS better manage their disease.
Another study found that odor identification could be a good discrimination between secondary progressive MS and relapsing MS.
This assessment of olfactory functions could also contribute to the development of clinical markers in secondary progressive MS.
One patient’s experience
People with MS can experience a variety of olfactory issues.
These issues are divided into three categories: anosmia, or total loss of smell; hyposmia, or reduced sense of smell; and normosmia, or a normal sense of smell.
Erika Lyons Richardson is a radio host of MS and Me radio, and also lives with MS. She shared her experiences with Healthline.
“I have suffered from anosmia, altered or loss of sense of smell, while living with MS the past 39 years,” she said. “I have altered sense of smell that intensifies as an exacerbation begins. It is most intense during periods of stress.”
She added she has “even experienced odors that others in the room do not detect.”
Richardson gauges her sense of smell and uses it as a red flag — her own personal marker to slow down.
“When I start sensing strange smells, I know to implement stress relievers. I use mindfulness and chair yoga to reduce my stress,” she explained.
Richardson is also mindful of the dangers associated with an impaired sense of smell.
“Altered sense of smell can be more than just an annoyance. It can impact preparing meals, smelling environmental dangers, and decreased appetite,” she said.
Editor’s Note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award winning blog is GirlwithMS.com, and she can be found @thegirlwithms.