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Torture Permanently Alters the Body’s Response to Pain

• November 06, 2013 • 9:10 AM

Torture in the 16th century, dramatized. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Could a new medical finding make it harder to claim something isn’t torture?

The European Journal of Pain, which must be a tough place to work, published a study today out of Israel that found people who have been subjected to torture have different responses to pain than people who haven’t—forever. Carried out by a physical therapist, two professors of social work, and a psychologist, the study argues that torture victims require medical treatment for this long-term pain response soon after torture, and that without it the body could continue to damage itself for decades. It also found that non-physical torture—POWs said they were subjected to extreme isolation, deprivation, and mock executions—may have some role in the long-term alteration of physical pain response.

The study recommended a conception of torture that suggests a physical therapy response to the likelihood of long-term pain problems.

The study looked at a group of slightly more than 100 Israeli combat veterans of the country’s 1973 war with Syria and Egypt. Two-thirds had been taken prisoner during the conflict and tortured, and the other third had not. In addition to responding to written questions, “all were put through a battery of psychophysical pain tests — applying a heating device to one arm, submerging the other arm in a hot water bath, and pressing a nylon fiber into a middle finger,” according to a summary of the research.

In line with previous research, the torture survivors “exhibited generalized alterations in pain perception and modulation,” meaning they felt more pain than most people when responding to the same kind of stimulus. Their bodies were also less able to “modulate” that pain’s effects. The human body usually responds to pain dynamically, essentially distributing it. The ex-POWs bodies exhibited a worse ability to regulate physical pain than those of the soldiers who had not been taken prisoner.

The study could not determine whether the evidence recorded now, 40 years after the war, was the result of the original experience of torture exclusively, or if four decades of chronic pain afterwards also influenced the breakdown of the body’s pain regulation mechanism. In either case, the study recommended a conception of torture that suggests a physical therapy response to the likelihood of long-term pain problems.

Outside medicine, the study offers additional data points to debates over what kinds of treatment do or do not constitute torture. Treatment shown to subsequently make someone feel pain more acutely than normal, for the rest of their lives, could conceivably represent one element of a standard.

Marc Herman
Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of The Shores of Tripoli.

More From Marc Herman

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