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Musculoskeletal System

Complaints of musculoskeletal aches and pains are very common in survivors of torture. They may be the result of repeated beatings, of suspension, or of other positional torture. They may also be somatic. They are non-specific, but should be documented. In accordance with the characteristics of torture, complaints are characterized as pain in the respective region of the body, limitation of joint movement, swelling, parasthesiae, numbness, loss of sensation to touch, and tendon reflex loss.

Physical examination of the skeleton should include testing for mobility of joints, the spine and the extremities. Pain with motion, contractures, strength, evidence of compartment syndrome, fractures with or without deformity, and dislocations should all be noted after documenting visible signs such as contusions, abrasions, and lacerations as described above. Trauma to muscle should be checked for, such as muscle rupture and muscle tearing. Specific clinical signs of ligament tear include swelling, bruising, muscle spasm, and painful stress test, often with joint laxity. There may be a palpable gap in the ligament. If it is completely torn, then considerable swelling and bruising occurs. Tendon ruptures, avulsions from the insertion of the bone, and dislocation of a tendon from its groove may all be observed.

Back pain is also common in survivors of torture, and there may be some local tenderness in the lumbar spine. However, these findings are non-specific and common in the general population. Fractures of the vertebral pedicles (the parts of the vertebra going away from the main body) may result from direct blunt force and, in some instances, radiography of the vertebrae may indicate recent or healed fractures.


Fractures are caused by a loss of bone integrity due to the effect of a blunt mechanical force on various vector planes. Fractures can be caused by a direct blow, in which case the fracture is at the site of the impact, or by twisting or crushing, in which case the fracture tends to be at the weakest part of the bone. In the acute phase, local swelling, bony deformity, tenderness and loss of function will be typical findings on clinical examination. In the chronic phase, various degrees of bony deformity, pain with activity and loss of function may be found. A direct fracture occurs at the site of impact or at the site where the force was applied. In an indirect fracture, the location, contours, and other characteristics of a fracture reflect the nature and direction of the applied force. The most frequent fractures seen in survivors of torture are of the nasal bones, the ribs, the radius, ulna and small bones of the hand, the transverse process of vertebrae, and those of the coccyx. The hyoid bone and laryngeal cartilage may be fractured in partial strangulation or from blows to the neck.

If a person alleges that a bone was fractured during torture and a callus is palpable, that should normally be sufficient to document. X-rays are unlikely to add anything. Generally, even with an X-ray, it is only possible to say that a bone was fractured within a wide time-frame, but very rarely that the fracture was caused by torture. Mal-united fractures are highly supportive of a history of torture with no immediate medical treatment.

Routine radiographs are recommended at the initial examination, if facilities are available. Injuries to tendons, ligaments, and muscles are best evaluated with MRI, but arthrography (arthroscopy) can also be performed. In the acute stage, MRI can detect hemorrhage and possible muscle tears. Muscles usually heal completely without scarring, so later imaging studies will be negative. MRI or scintigraphy may detect bone injury such as a subperiosteal haematoma, which may not be detected on routine radiographs or CT. Radiographic aging of relatively recent fractures should be performed by an experienced trauma radiologist.