Treatment of traumatised refugees: the effect of Basic Body Awareness Therapy versus
mixed physical activity as add-on treatment – A Randomised Controlled Trial (PTF4)
2. Project period:
The inclusion period has taken place since September 2013 and is expected to be
complete by autumn 2015.
Maja Sticker Nordbrandt, MD, PhD student
4. Supervisors and collaborative partners
- Senior Consultant Jessica Carlsson, PhD (CTP) (primary supervisor).
- Professor Erik Lykke Mortensen, University of Copenhagen (supervisor).
- Associate Professor Jonna Anne Jensen, Metropolitan University College, Denmark
- Professor Derrick Silove, Psychiatry Research & Teaching Unit, Liverpool
Hospital, University of New South Wales, Australia (collaborative partner).
- Executive director Jorge Aroche, The New South Wales Service for the Treatment and
Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), Australia (collaborative
Chronic pain is commonly comorbid to PTSD(1–5). According to the well-established “Mutual
Maintenance Theory” there is a mutual maintenance of PTSD and chronic pain, and the treatment
of chronic pain plays a central role in improving the treatment and wellbeing of patients with
PTSD(3). Nevertheless, there is a lack of knowledge about how to treat chronic pain in traumaaffected refugee populations. The project is motivated by this important gap.
The effects of physical activity on other psychiatric illnesses than PTSD have been examined(6–13).
Regarding depression, which is often comorbid to PTSD(14–19), the evidence suggests small or
moderate effects of physical activity(16,20,21). Importantly, positive effects of physical activity have
also been seen for chronic pain(22–30). However, scientific knowledge about physical activity as
part of the treatment for traumatised refugees is rather limited and no national or international
guidelines exist on this topic(31–33). Despite this gap, different types of physical activity are often
used as part of the treatment for this group of patients.
There are a few randomised controlled trials on traumatised refugees with PTSD, which had physical
activity as the intervention. Among these, one small randomised controlled trial from 2011 by Liedl
et al., suggesting specifically that physical activity adds value to pain management for traumatised
refugees (34). Another type of physical activity which has been studied as intervention in a number
of trials on other illnesses such as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, schizophrenia, personality disorders
and non-specific musculoskeletal disorders is Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) (9,11,24–
26,35). In order to test the feasibility of BBAT on a group of traumatised refugees, a pilot study was
conducted in 2012 (36) at the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry (CTP). The
participants showed high acceptability, compliance and satisfaction with BBAT (36).
The present study has been inspired by the preliminary results of these two abovementioned
As in the case of depression, the working mechanisms behind the effect of physical activity on PTSD
symptoms are unclear. The Cochrane review; ”Sports & Games for post-traumatic stress disorder”
from 2010 concludes: “Randomised controlled trials assessing the effect of sport and game
interventions are needed to inform the current practice of using sports and games to improve
symptoms of PTSD”. In line with this, there is a need for more systematic research examining a
number of unsolved issues: 1) the effectiveness of physical activity as a remedy for symptoms of
PTSD and chronic pain; 2) the relative benefits of different types of physical activity; 3) whether
group or individual physical activity is the most efficient; 4) the optimum duration and intensity of
- To examine whether physical activity as an add-on treatment to psychiatric treatment as
usual, gives an increased effect compared to psychiatric treatment as usual in mental
symptoms (PTSD, depression and anxiety), quality of life, functional capacity, coping with
pain and body awareness.
- To examine, whether an increase in physiological parameters such as strength, endurance,
balance and coordination correlates with an improvement of PTSD, anxiety, depression,
coping with pain, quality of life, functional capacity as well as body awareness.
- To examine if the number of hours spent on home exercises in the specific assigned physical
activity is a positive predictor of the treatment effect.
- To examine if Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) has a higher impact on mental
symptoms (PTSD, depression, anxiety), coping with pain, quality of life, functional capacity,
and body awareness, compared to mixed physical activity.
7.1 Number of participants
288 (min. 200 are expected to complete the trial in accordance with the protocol).
Patients referred to treatment for PTSD at CTP from September 2013 to August 2015; aged 18
or older; refugee or family reunified with a refugee; diagnosed with PTSD pursuant to the ICD10 research criteria; psychological trauma in the anamnesis; estimated by a medical doctor to
be motivated for treatment; provide written informed consent.
7.3 Description of data and data collection
The patients are randomised into three groups. All three groups receive psychiatric treatment
as usual (TAU). TAU consists of 6-7 months of medical treatment according to best clinical
practice in the field and manual-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. While one of the three
groups is a control group and solely receives TAU, the two other groups receive add-on
treatment with physical activity. One of the groups is assigned to Basic Body Awareness Therapy
(BBAT) (a method focusing on breathing, posture and body awareness) while the other group is
assigned to mixed physical activity (MPA), which focuses on exercises of strength, endurance,
balance and coordination. For all three groups the treatment period is around 6-7 months.
The patients will fill out self-administered ratings three times during the treatment period: one
at the pre-treatment consultation (baseline), one halfway through the treatment (before the
first psychotherapy session) and one just after completing the treatment. Furthermore, there
are ratings and tests specifically related to the physical activity at the beginning and at the end
of the treatment programme. Trained medical students carry out blinded observer-ratings of
depression and anxiety at the start and at the end of the treatment programme. The primary
endpoint of the study will be symptoms of PTSD, and secondary endpoints will be symptoms of
depression, anxiety, and quality of life, functional capacity, coping with pain, body awareness
and physical fitness.
7.4 Application/acceptance from the Danish Data Protection Agency, the National Committee
on Health Research Ethics
Consent for the study has been given both from the Danish Data Protection Agency and the
National Committee on Health Research Ethics.
Drop-out analysis is based on the patients who show up at the initial referral interview. The
patients in the programme will be compared with the patients who were excluded at the referral
interview in order to identify possible systematic selection bias. Furthermore, the group of
patients included in the trial, but who eventually drop out and do not complete the trial will be
analysed. In addition to completer analysis, intention-to-treat analyses will be carried out.
8. Expected results
The results of this trial are expected to improve treatment for the individual patient and to stimulate
further research within a relatively short time. In the long term, results are expected to be applied
in reference programmes and clinical guidelines. This will ensure high quality evidence-based
treatment as well as ease the work of practitioners with respect to identifying the appropriate type
of treatment for the patient. Furthermore, the trial is expected to generate a socio-economic gain
as ineffective treatment programmes are prevented.
9. Dissemination of results
Positive as well as inconclusive or negative results will be published.
After completion of data analysis, three publications are planned regarding the following aspects of
- The effect of physical activity as an add-on treatment to psychiatric treatment as usual for
- The mental health benefits of a focus on body awareness when treating traumatised
refugees with physical activity.
- The mental health benefits of improvement of parameters of fitness when treating
traumatised refugees with PTSD.
The results are planned to be presented on national as well as international meetings and
conferences of psychiatry.
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