Skeptic News: New treatement for child abuse victims?

By Keir Liddle

The BBC has reportedthat a trial is under-way in NHS Forth Valley to determine whether survivors of childhood abuse can be helped to overcome flashbacks and nightmares using light therapy. The report states that the treatment has been described as “physiotherapy for the brain” and is an alternative to more traditional talking therapy.

The claim is made that patients are able to erase abuse memories by focusing on light or buzzers and is  is being offered at a centre in Larbert, near Falkirk, in conjuction with Open Secret, a charity which works with victims of childhood abuse.

The trial is assessing two techniques eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and emotional freedom technique (EMT).

Emotional Freedom Technique is an alternative therapy that draws on various theories of alternative medicine including acupunctureneuro-linguistic programmingenergy medicine and Thought Field Therapy. During an EFT session, the client will focus on a specific issue while tapping on so-called “end points of the body’s energy meridians“.  As you can probably guess given that description the therapy is highly controversial and lacks any mechanism to explain how it could work. As such it has been described as unfalsifiable and therefore pseudoscientific.

Controlled trials and controlled study of EFT suggest that any benefits experienced are due to placebo effects, desensitization and distraction rather than the mechanisms proposed by its practitioners and much of the evidence to support it is entirely anecdotal.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy that was developed by Francine Shapiro and is similarly controversial. Empirical evidence shows that EMDR in a 2007 review of 33 randomised controlled trials of various psychological treatments for PTSD, EMDR was rated as an effective method, not significantly different in effect from Trauma-Focused CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or SM (Stress Management) treatments. Another meta-analysis concluded that EMDR is not as effective, or as long lasting, as traditional exposure therapy and it has been argued that despite the treatment procedures being quite different between EMDR and traditional exposure therapy the main effective component in EMDR is exposure.

No one doubts that childhood abuse is a traumatic and terrible event however is it really the best course of action to explore controversial therapies and discredited therapies as a means of treatment?

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