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Could the “sniff test” guide your loved one’s coma care?

On Behalf of | Mar 10, 2023 | Injuries |

You’re called to the hospital after a loved one has been in an accident only to be told that they’re in a coma. Naturally, the first thing you want to know is whether they’re going to wake up again – and how long that might take.

Up until recently, the best that doctors could do is make an educated guess. Despite all of the advances in medicine, incorrect diagnoses involving disorders of consciousness run about 40%. That has given families and medical providers very little in the way of guidance when they’re trying to decide what direction to go with someone’s care.

A simple new test makes use of olfactory functions

Recently, however, researchers discovered that a simple, non-invasive test may hold the key to determining whether a patient is “minimally conscious” (and likely to regain more consciousness) or in a persistent vegetative state. This test is no more elaborate than exposing the patient to pleasant and noxious odors in turn and measuring their breathing.

The olfactory sense in humans is strong and fairly hard-wired into human brains in a way that makes a sniff response largely reflexive. You may, for example, inhale deeply after a spring rain without even realizing and slightly hold your breath without knowing it as you pass the trash cans.

People in comas sometimes show the same response. When tested with strong, unpleasant odors, the patients who showed a negative response (by restricting their breathing a little) all eventually obtained a minimally conscious state or better. The opposite was largely true for those patients who showed no reaction, although a few “false negatives” were registered. Even so, researchers theorize that the false negatives may be due to damage to the olfactory sensors in some patients’ brains, not the test.

Even though this test offers new insights that can guide a victim’s medical care, there’s no question that the road ahead after a brain injury is complicated and long. Find out more about what it takes to hold the responsible party liable for their actions.

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