Thursday, 4 August 2011

Train-track Therapy

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Another curious ‘Alternative therapy’ that has recently sprung up in Indonesia has been dubbed ‘track therapy’, this might sounds far fetched or something used as a motivation tool or to overcome irrational phobias, it is actually being used by desperate and poor people in Indonesia to treat their chronic illnesses where modern  medicine has failed them. It’s recently popularity stems from a story where a disabled Chinese man goes to a train track to commit suicide, but instead is cured1. While most skeptics would say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, this is not always a luxury that people suffering from a chronic disease can always afford.

What is interesting is how the claimed principle behind track therapy is so similar to the electrotherapy popular in Europe in the mid 19th and early 20th century, where an electric current was passed through parts of the body in order to being about a therapeutic effect2. However the main difference here is than the track is not electrified, as the trains obtain electric from overhead power lines and not the track itself. So most people would say “What’s the harm then?” Well, there are many reasons why this practice is dangerous, the most obvious of which is laying across railway tracks that are in constant use, and the frequency of which is often unpredictable. The Indonesian government has erected signs in popular locations stating a prison sentence or large fine for anyone caught on the tracks, in order to try and discourage people from attempting this, but it has so far proved unsuccessful. There is another reason why this practice is dangerous, it is distorting the boundaries between medicine and placebo, as many people have claimed to feel better after laying on the tracks, and while this is beneficial the risk they are putting themselves at is significant. It is likely that more people will be killed using this therapy than will really benefit. Understandably being told by a doctor that there are no effective treatments for your disease, or that you cannot afford them, leads people to trying irrational things in order to seek relief, while many placebos can be effective this should not be one of them. 

E Markham (2011). Train-track Therapy Blogspot

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