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Medical history

As stated in Module 3 [1], the pysician should obtain a complete medical history, including information about prior medical, surgical or psychiatric problems. S/he should:

Specific historical information may be useful in correlating regional practices of torture with individual allegations of abuse. Examples of useful information include descriptions of torture devices, body positions, methods of restraint, descriptions of acute or chronic wounds and disabilities and identifying information about perpetrators and places of detention. While it is essential to obtain accurate information regarding a torture survivor’s experiences, open-ended interviewing methods require that a patient disclose these experiences in their own words using free recall. An individual who has survived torture may have trouble expressing in words his or her experiences and symptoms. In some cases, it may be helpful to use trauma event and symptom checklists or questionnaires. If the interviewer believes it may be helpful to use trauma event and symptom checklists, there are numerous questionnaires available; however, none are specific to torture victims. All complaints of a torture survivor are significant. Although there may be no correlation with the physical findings, they should be reported. Acute and chronic symptoms and disabilities associated with specific forms of abuse and the subsequent healing processes should be documented.

Acute Symptoms

The individual should be asked to describe any injuries that may have resulted from the specific methods of alleged abuse. For example, bleeding, bruising, swelling, open wounds, lacerations, fractures, dislocations, joint stress, haemoptysis (coughing up blood), pneumothorax (lung puncture), tympanic membrane perforation, genitourinary system injuries, burns (including colour, bulla or necrosis according to the degree of burn), electrical injuries (size and number of lesions, their colour and surface characteristics), chemical injuries (colour, signs of necrosis), pain, numbness, constipation and vomiting. The intensity, frequency and duration of each symptom should be noted. The development of any subsequent skin lesions should be described and whether or not they left scars. Ask about health on release; was he or she able to walk, confined to bed? If confined, for how long? How long did wounds take to heal? Were they infected? What treatment was received? Was it a physician or a traditional healer? Be aware that the detainee’s ability to make such observations may have been compromised by the torture itself or its after-effects and should be documented. It is important to note that acute lesions are often characteristic since they may show a pattern of inflicted injury that differs from non-inflicted injuries, for example by their shape, repetitiveness, and distribution on the body.

Chronic Symptoms

Elicit information of physical ailments that the individual believes were associated with torture or ill-treatment. Note the severity, frequency and duration of each symptom and any associated disability or need for medical or psychological care. Even if the after-effects of acute lesions are not observed months or years later, some physical findings may still remain, such as electrical current or thermal burn scars, skeletal deformities, incorrect healing of fractures, dental injuries, loss of hair and myofibrosis. Common somatic complaints include headache, back pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, sexual dysfunction and muscle pain. Common psychological symptoms include depressive affect, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks and memory difficulties (see Module 6 [2]).