Survivors of torture often have an increased need for mental and physical healthcare due, in part, to complex sequelae of trauma; but, often they also face socio-economic and cultural impediments to access to expensive and unfamiliar western healthcare resources. Put that way, the case for the use of the cheaper and culturally sensitive alternative medicine practices in the treatment of torture survivors seems clear. But, are these practices effective? That is the question being asked at an article published in the latest issue of TORTURE, a scientific journal, by a team of researchers at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine [PDF].
The shortcomings of (un)conventional western medicine
Aside from its significantly higher costs, it is important to be aware that western medicine isn’t anywhere near an ideal for the treatment of all torture survivors. Some of the barriers may include “language, cultural perceptions of illness,” and, most importantly, “unfamiliarity with western medicine.” For a large majority of torture survivors, western medicine may in fact be more “alternative” than Ayurveda, yoga, music therapy, acupuncture or t’ai chi, to name a few.
Furthermore, for a western medical practitioner it may be difficult to diagnose an exact cause of chronic pain when both physical and psychological factors are contributory and when the right treatment might depend on the patient’s own interpretation of illness. The authors state that “Given the complexity of the resulting diagnosis, it is not surprising that conventional treatments, including pharmacological and psychological therapy, though sometimes helpful, are at times insufficient.”
A mind-body healing approach
CAM modalities promise to compensate for some of the shortcomings of western medicine by offering a cost-effective “mind-body healing approach”, where health is viewed as an “ongoing process encompassing interdependent physical, psychological, and social factors.”
The researchers at Boston University looked at a significant body of scientific evidence on the efficacy of several CAM modalities applied to the treatment of torture survivors and refugees. Despite the shortage of scientific knowledge in this area, their review outlines several promising results and encouraging experiences.
When survivors report a psychological dissociation from the body, a common result of torture and trauma, it seems that massage therapy and bodywork might prove to be the most effective method at hand. Or, when a torture survivor reports disturbed sleep (and up to 80% do), cost-effective and easy to implement yoga practices have been reported to reduce stress and sleep disturbance, as well as being beneficial in the treatment of anxiety (reported by up to 93% of survivors), depression (66%), PTSD and chronic pain.
In the face of growing demand for torture rehabilitation services and diminishing funding streams, the question remains: what is keeping the global torture rehabilitation movement from embracing complementary and alternative medicine?