Objective. Many traumatized refugees experience both posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. Based on Mutual Maintenance Theory and the Perpetual Avoidance Model, this study examined the additional effect of physical activity within a biofeedback-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-BF) for traumatized refugees.
Design. In a controlled design, 36 patients were randomized into one of three conditions (CBT-BF, CBT-BF with physical activity [CBT-BF+active], and a waiting list control group [WL]). Thirty patients (n = 10 in each group) completed the treatment and a follow-up assessment 3 months later. Participants' coping strategies, pain and mental health status, and physiological reactivity were assessed before and after the intervention and at 3-month follow-up. Treatment effects were analyzed using analyses of variance with baseline scores as covariates (ANCOVAs) and the Reliable Change Index.
Results. The CBT-BF and CBT-BF+active groups showed improvements in all outcome measures relative to the WL group. The effect sizes for the main outcome measures were higher in the CBT-BF+active group than in the CBT-BF group. Repeated measures analyses of covariance showed significant group effects for coping strategies—in particular, for the “cognitive restructuring” and “counter-activities” subscales as well as a marginally significant group effect for “perceived self-competence”—with the CBT-BF+active group showing more favorable outcomes than the CBT-BF group. Moreover, 60% of participants in the CBT-BF+active group showed clinically reliable intraindividual change in at least one subscale of the pain coping strategies questionnaire, compared with just 30% of participants in the CBT-BF group.
Conclusion. Findings of improved coping strategies, larger effect sizes, and higher rates of clinical improvement in the CBT-BF+active group suggest that physical activity adds value to pain management interventions for traumatized refugees. Given the small sample size, however, these preliminary results need replication in a larger trial.