Many students and recent graduates of occupational therapy schools, as well as certified practitioners, find working for a period overseas in underserved countries to be very rewarding, both in terms of personal fulfillment and professional experience. Occupational therapy internships overseas are available for graduate-level students, and having overseas volunteer experience can help graduates stand out when they start looking for full-time employment in the United States.
Licensed professionals who volunteer have many of their travel and living expenses paid. A number of them spend annual vacations working abroad, while students can choose internships during summer breaks or as undergraduate electives at many universities.
In many underdeveloped countries, occupational therapy is rarely available, especially in rural communities, inner-city hospitals, clinics, and orphanages. Aid groups that place graduates of U.S. occupational therapy schools in underserved countries do much of the footwork to make sure that a volunteer can hit the ground ready to work, including help in obtaining all visa, vaccination, and permit requirements.
Students and practicing occupational therapists looking for overseas jobs can get a better understanding of all that is involved in working overseas at Internet websites dedicated to overseas opportunities. These provide guides, software, and informative web pages, as well as the personal experiences of occupational therapists and student interns who have worked in different foreign countries, along with available volunteer and job opportunities.
An article published in 2008 in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy provided firsthand experiences of a number of student interns who spent time abroad. It noted that none of them had any major difficulties with placements or regretted their experiences overseas.
Alternative Medicine and Occupational Therapy
Many patients of OTRs suffer chronic pain, either directly associated with an illness or injury or from unknown causes. About 75 million individuals in the United States have some type of chronic pain, and one fifth of them report poor pain control with prescription and over-the-counter analgesic medications. Moreover, prescription painkillers can be highly addictive and have other unwanted side effects.
A number of occupational therapists and physicians in general have turned to alternative medical treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, and massage therapy to help treat chronic pain, often in the absence of any evidence-based outcomes research. Mainstream medicine and health insurers are coming to accept alternative therapies, especially acupuncture, to help treat pain.
Occupational Therapy and Acupuncture
Acupuncture has made steady inroads in treating all forms of pain, as well as other conditions, and has increasingly become accepted as a reimbursable treatment by health insurers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 8.2 million adults use acupuncture in the Unites States, making it the most popular form of complementary medicine used for pain control.
It is also reportedly helpful in treating carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma and helps with stroke rehabilitation. Scientists have several theories about how acupuncture might work. One is that acupuncture needles release endorphins into the central nervous system. Another is that treatment stimulates nerves in the spinal cord, releasing neurotransmitters that suppress pain. A third theory is that blood flow is increased around the acupuncture needle site, supplying nutrients or hastening removal of toxic substances, thus helping the healing process.
Acupuncture is most often used to treat musculoskeletal pain, including lower back pain, arthritis, and similar conditions, and many doctors consider acupuncture safer than prescription pain medications. Other forms of acupuncture may be beneficial for certain psychological conditions, especially ear acupuncture, which can help with anxiety, depression, and addiction. It is also said to improve sleep and overall quality of life, according to some reports, and may be beneficial for terminally ill hospice patients.
Although far less accepted as a bona fide treatment option in the United States, homeopathy is an ancient form of medicine that treats the whole person rather than any specific symptom or disease. Treatment usually involves using very low doses of different toxic substances to boost the body’s natural immune and defense systems based on the theory that a small dose of a substance can help cure or prevent problems caused by greater exposure – in some ways similar to a vaccine.
Although published studies on homeopathic remedies are sparse, a recent analysis of randomized controlled trials found that the clinical effects attributed to homeopathic treatment could not be entirely explained by the so-called placebo effect.
Like acupuncture, massage therapy has become widely accepted as a treatment for number of conditions familiar to most occupational therapists, most notably back pain and fibromyalgia, a poorly understood condition that causes extreme episodes of pain in different parts of the body. Fibromyalgia is difficult to treat with most pain medications because many patients do not respond that well, and the use of corticosteroids, while often helpful, is limited by potential liver toxicity and other side effects.
Many practitioners and fibromyalgia patients swear by massage therapy, and it is helpful for graduates of occupational schools to have some familiarity with massage therapy techniques or to work with a massage therapist when treating patients with chronic pain. Massage has also been shown to help relieve mental agitation and anxiety, and many nursing homes already use massage therapy with patients. For hospice patients, massage therapy can serve a number of uses – it can help them relax, improve their sleep and quality of life, as well as ease pain associated with tension and stress.
In its September 2010 newsletter, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine published a special report on massage therapy as an option for supportive care, including an excellent list of supporting research. It is available at the NIH website.