Homeopathy is a holistic system of medicine that uses natural substances (such as plants, minerals, and animals) to treat chronic and acute illness and disease. The homeopathic system is based on the principle that the same substances which cause illness can be used to treat the illness.
History of Homeopathy
Homeopathy (which derives its name from the Greek words “homoios”, meaning similar, and “pathos”, meaning suffering) was developed in the late 18th century by a German medical doctor named Dr. Samuel Hahnemann. Dr. Hahnemann developed homeopathy while trying to discover an alternative to the crude medical treatments of the time such as bloodletting, purging, vomiting, and the administering of large doses of harsh drugs such as arsenic.
Dr. Hahnemann knew that quinine cured malaria, but also found that when he ingested quinine (from the bark of the cinchona tree), he developed symptoms of malaria. Dr. Hahnemann posited that a substance can be both helpful and harmful, depending on the amount ingested by an individual and whether that individual is healthy or sick when ingesting the substance.
By testing his theory on himself, Dr. Hahnemann developed the three foundations of homeopathy: first, that like cures like (also known as the Law of Similars); second, that the most diluted substances are the most potent (Law of the Infinitesimal Dose); and third, that illness is unique to the individual and each individual will differ in treatments needs.
While the initial reception to homeopathy was lukewarm at best, it became more popular after the 1831 cholera epidemic in Europe. During that time, conventional treatment of cholera resulted in mortality rate of over 50 percent, while treatment using homeopathy (which involved cleanliness, ventilation, and disinfection) produced a mortality rate between 2 and 20 percent. Eventually, homeopathy spread to the United States, where there were 22 homeopathic schools of medicine and 15,000 homeopathic physicians practicing by 1900.
Advances in cellular and molecular biology, as well as physiology, began to replace homeopathy by the 1960s in the United States. However, homeopathy experienced a revival in the 1970s. By the end of the 20th century, more books and articles were being written about homeopathy since the end of the 19th century.
In 1997, the British medical journal The Lancet compiled 89 previous clinical studies of homeopathic treatments. In 44 of the 89 previous clinical trials, homeopathic treatment was found to be more effective than a placebo. In no trial was the placebo found to be more effective than homeopathic treatment. In 1991, a review of 107 clinical trials by the British Medical Journal found that 77 percent of homeopathic treatments produced positive results.
How Homeopathy is Practiced
Homeopathic physicians use a variety of patient information to develop a remedy for the individual, including the patients’ medical history, personal habits, personality, and symptoms. The physician then creates a “remedy portrait”, which contains the remedy best suited to treat the patient.
Once diagnosed, patients are given dilutions of a substance which would cause the same ailment in a healthy individual. This substance, also known as “mother tincture,” is extracted from the natural source, soaked in alcohol, and then diluted. The remedy then causes the body to be stimulated to fight the illness. The duration of treatment varies by the individual and illness—some remedies work within hours, while some must be taken for a lifetime.
For example, to treat poison ivy, patients are given rhus toxicodendron, a remedy made from the poison ivy plant. Often, homeopathic remedies make a patient worse-off before they get better, which is referred to as the “healing crisis.” Despite outward appearances, the healing crisis is seen as a symbol of success, as the homeopathic remedy has triggered the body to start fighting the illness.
Homeopathy is practiced by homeopathic physicians all over the world, and individuals also use it for their own care. Additionally, many dentistry and veterinary practices incorporate homeopathic treatments into their care plans. Homeopathy may also be used in conjunction with traditional medicine to treat comment ailments such as the flu and more chronic illnesses like arthritis, but is not used to treat emergencies.
The practice of homeopathy is most popular in Europe. For example, in Britain, homeopathy is a post-graduate specialty and homeopathic hospitals and clinics are included in the national healthcare system. Germany requires the subject in medical school, while French law requires that pharmacies sell homeopathic remedies. Additionally, homeopathy is also practiced in India, North America, South America, and Australia.
How Homeopathy Works
To develop a homeopathic remedy, a physician examines a patient’s symptoms to find a substance which would cause the same symptoms in a healthy individual. Homeopathic remedies are created by diluting a substance in water or alcohol. A remedy’s potency is determined by its degree of dilution and the number of times the substance was diluted. Dilutions are indentified by the letters X (meaning a 1:10 dilution, one part substance and nine parts water), C (1:100), and M (1:1,000). For example, if a substance is labeled 6C, it has been diluted 6 times for a potency of 1:100. Generally, the more times a substance has been diluted, the more potent it is.
Critics question why a substance is more potent when it is more diluted. Some practitioners theorize that the water or alcohol used in the dilution may store electromagnetic signals from the original substance, which match the same signals created by the illness that is being treated.
Other critics, including homeopathic doctors, are concerned with the growing penchant for self-care using homeopathic remedies. When an individual takes an over-the-counter homeopathic remedy for the flu (which are generally less potent), this runs counter to the homeopathic principal of tailoring the remedy to the individual. These critics believe that homeopathic remedies prescribed after an interview and examination would be more effective.
Conditions Benefited by Homeopathy
Homeopathy may be effective treatment for a number of conditions which are not usually helped by traditional medicine. However, many caution that homeopathy should not be used to treat serious illnesses that are normally treated through traditional methods. Homeopathy may be most effective to treat the following conditions:
Used in conjunction with traditional medicine for angina, a homeopathic remedy may reduce the occurrence of chest pain during exercise for persons with ischemic heart disease.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Homeopathic treatments may be used to prevent fatigue.
Homeopathic methods often speed recovery from diarrhea.
Homeopathic remedies may be able to reduce pain and increase quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia. Additionally, Rhus toxidendron often leads to improved sleep.
Oscillococcinum, used to treat the flu, is one of the most popular homeopathic remedies. It is created from a dilution of duck heart and kidney, which are believed to harbor influenza viruses. In a 1989 study of 237 flu patients by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 17 percent taking oscillococcinum recovered after 48 hours, while only 10 percent of those taking the placebo recovered in that time period. However, the remedy was ineffective for patients with severe cases of the flu.
Mild Traumatic Brain Injury
While traditional medicine is often ineffective in treating mild traumatic brain injury, homeopathic remedies may reduce disabilities normally caused by this type of injury.
Homeopathic gels may relieve osteoarthritis just as effectively as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent.
Homeopathic nasal sprays are just as effective in treating seasonal allergies as conventional sprays such as cromolyn sodium.
Homeopathic remedies may relieve pain and increase strength in individuals suffering from arthritis.
Seborrhoeic dermatitis (dandruff)
Oral homeopathic remedies may help treat dandruff.
Side-Effects of Cancer Treatments
Homeopathic remedies may be used to treat the side-effects of cancer treatments. For example, Traumeel S may be used to reduce the severity and duration of mouth sores (stomatitis) in people undergoing bone-marrow transplants. Additionally, belladonna can be used to treat dermatitis in women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer.
Side-effect of haemodialysis
Itching, a common side-effect of haemodialysis, can be treated with homeopathic remedies.
Sprains and Strains
Individuals with sprains may take Traumeel to improve their range of motion, while marathon runners may take arnica D30 to reduce muscle pain.
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- Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
- Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
- Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)
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