Despite medical and scientific advancement and the widespread availability of the latest technology in medical establishements here in the Kingdom, some Saudi families are still practising and preferring traditional treatments.
One such treatment is known as ironing the skin, where a long and thin piece of iron - not unlike a pen - is heated and applied to the bare skin of the area where pain is being experienced for a second. This leads to - according to the myth - instant pain relief because of the diversion this branding of the skin causes.
Saudi Gazette met with a number of patients, their ‘doctors,’ and officials to explore this puzzling phenomena.
“We use this ironing treatment for certain illnesses such as rheumatoid, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, impotency in men, and for those women who have recently given birth and cannot lactate properly,” explained Abu-Hamed, a practitioner of this treatment. “We also use it to stop bleeding, as an energy stimulant, to lower body temperature and for children that suffer from jaundice.” According to Abu Hamed, the purpose of the treatment is to divert the patient’s attention from the original source of pain. The lack of medical evidence to support this kind of treatment aside, it is also regarded negatively by government officials. The Health Affair Management has, for instance, repeatedly warned people from undergoing such treatment, with a blanket ban on it within all medical establishments.
“We have never issued a license for centers practicing such treatments, and all those who are continuing the practice are violating the rules by offering a treatment that hasn’t been approved by the Ministry of Health,” remarked Dr. Sami Badawood, Director of the Health Affairs Management.
According to Badawood, the management has even launched several awareness campaigns around the Kingdom, particularly in malls, but some people are still ignoring the warnings. “We even conduct certain inspections of medical centers and private clinics, so that we can ensure that all medical centers are free of this,” he added.
The discovery of such a violation will result in the closing of that certain medical center and the imposition of a fine that could go up to 10,000 Saudi riyals. Despite such difficulties, why do some people still undergo this treatment? Hia Al-Jehany is a security employee at a private company and she spoke to Saudi Gazette about her daughter’s experience of the treatment. “My year-old daughter was suffering from a loss of appetite and every doctor and specialist we consulted said that she was perfectly fine. After losing hope that there would be a cure for our doctor, my husband advised me to visit someone who treats patients by ironing their skin,” she explained. “The idea seemed ridiculous at first, and I was scared of the consequences so my colleagues at work even advised me not to consider it. However, my husband kept pressing for me to take our daughter for the treatment.” Her daughter did indeed, undergo the treatment, but it did not help her at all according to Al-Jehani.
From an Islamic perspective, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not ban this treatment outright, but made it apparent that he was not in favor of it. “Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was not keen about this treatment, and did not give any kind of importance or preference to it,” stated Sheikh Asem Al-Hakim, Imam of Ja’fer Al-Tayyar mosque in Jeddah. If not Islamic, this practice does hold certain traditional relevance in Saudi society. “Using the ironing treatment is considered a certain social tradition which may be acceptable to some members of society while unacceptable to others,” explained Dr. Mansour Bin Askar, a Sociologist at King Saud University, Riyadh, who focuses on Islamic issues in particular. “The treatment is mostly found among older people and those who belong to certain tribes that have traditionally actively practiced this treatment.”
He added that there are certain tribes that still refuse to believe in modern medicine and insist on undergoing traditional treatments. Abu Hamed belongs to one such tribe and states that he practices the treatment at home and only amongst his relatives. “There are no specific directions in old books about this treatment, but we learn it from our parents as it is the only one we can practice today because of the safety guarantee,” he stated.
Despite Hamed’s assurances however, the treatment is both dangerous and entails certain risks according to Dr. Badawood. “There are many dangerous implications of this treatment such as dermatitis and the spreading of bacteria because the same tool is applied to the skin of all patients,” he explained. “We have banned this treatment because it is not effective in removing pain. In fact, it is a kind of cheating because it only diverts the pain.”
The biggest implication of the treatment however, is inflammation of the skin and burns Abu Hamed is quick to point out, however, that even this treatment requires him to take some necessary precautions, and he is considerate of the risks involved. He always asks his patients, for instance, whether they are suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure and refuses to do the treatment on them if they do. He also added that sensitive areas of the body, including nerves, arteries and veins should be avoided, and the treatment should not be performed on pregnant women and those patients who have not eaten something for a while. He also advises his patients to use a cream for the burns and abstain from spicy food and sexual activity for a week.
A concern for officials is the availability of such treatments within homes, a phenomena that is difficult to address. More worrying is the fact that sometimes the treatment is not conducted by someone who has been trained in it. Often, the eldest person of the house is allowed to conduct the treatment as it is assumed that they will know how to do it. - SG