Homeopathy: What's It All About?
People who practice homeopathy say it taps into the body's innate ability to heal itself. The term has its roots in the Greek words "homos" (similar) and "pathos" (suffering).
The Law of Similars
Rather than simply suppressing symptoms of a disease, homeopathic remedies are believed to help the body's own healing mechanisms work. This is accomplished by giving patients small amounts of a substance that causes an illness to stimulate the body's natural capacity to heal from it. Known as the "law of similars," this approach was introduced by German physician and chemist Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s.
Today, homeopathic practitioners choose from a wide variety of treatments that include minute amounts of ingredients that create symptoms similar to what each patient is experiencing. Because the active ingredients are significantly diluted, patients rarely feel worse. On the contrary, their symptoms should go away.
Too Little Medicine to Do Any Good?
Skeptics of homeopathy say that these dilutions, some with concentrations of substances as small as one in 100 (to the 200th power), are useless. After being diluted to this degree, they say, the solution does not contain a single molecule of the medicinal substance.
"[Hahnemann] invented something that would be a foolproof way of not doing harm to people, which meant diluting substances so that they have no effect," says Wallace Sampson, MD, editor-in-chief of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
Letting Your Body Do the Work
Homeopathic practitioners, many of whom are also medical doctors, disagree. They point to 200 years of anecdotal evidence and the popularity of homeopathy abroad as proof that their methods work.
"Homeopathy is a very important component in natural holistic medicine," maintains Raphael Kellman, MD, founder and head of the Raphael Kellman Center for Progressive Medicine in New York City. Dr. Kellman sees homeopathy as a way to tap into the body's powerful "software" that conventional medicine too often ignores.
"Ultimately, it's the body that does the healing," says Dr. Kellman, who uses homeopathy to complement traditional medical therapies.
Conventional physicians respond that anecdotes are highly unreliable, and the apparent healing seen could be no more than the placebo effect.
Homeopathic practitioners say that their approach allows them to treat illnesses for which traditional medicine has no good answers.
"I have had many cases of long-term cures of chronic asthma, chronic migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic depression," says Todd Rowe, MD, CCH, DHt, president-elect of the National Center for Homeopathy.
However, medical researchers reply that since high rates of apparent improvement occur among people in the placebo group of medical trials, even when chronic diseases are involved, these testimonials do not indicate a real treatment effect.
The Individual and the Whole
Dr. Rowe stresses that homeopathy focuses on the whole patient in an attempt to heal both surface and underlying issues not to suppress symptoms.
"The goal," he says, "is to find one remedy that covers all the individual's problems."
Searching for Evidence
Advocates say that the individualized nature of homeopathy makes finding scientific proof of its effectiveness an unnecessary challenge.
"You can't apply the same methods of proof in natural medicine," maintains Dr. Kellman. But most physicians and clinical researchers strongly disagree with this point of view.
An analysis of 110 studies on homeopathy published in 2005 in the British journal Lancet concluded that in the best designed studies homeopathy most often proved to be no more effective than placebo. Based on these findings, medical researchers have suggested that use of homeopathy should be regarded as just as ineffective as the absence of material ingredients in homeopathic remedies would indicate.
Finding a Practitioner
There are various types of doctors practicing homeopathy in the United States, and their certification depends on their qualifications and level of training. For example, one certifying board licenses medical doctors who are also homeopaths (DHt), one certifies naturopaths for homeopathy (DHANP), one certifies professional homeopaths only (RSHOM), and one certifies any of the above (CCH).
"Some professional homeopaths choose to work in conjunction with a conventional physician, thereby helping their patients to receive the best of both worlds," Dr. Rowe explains.
Not a Replacement for Traditional Medicine
Dr. Rowe says that homeopathy is not the answer to every medical problem.
"Some conditions require immediate conventional intervention," he says. For example, a car accident requires a trip to the emergency room, not a homeopath, he says.
Still, Dr. Rowe believes that in cases where homeopathy is not the complete answer, it can still play an important role. For example, he has seen patients with insulin-dependent diabetes reduce the amount of insulin they need by using homeopathic treatments. However, there are no clinical studies to support this observation.
"It is not an either or," he says. "Some conditions are best treated by conventional methods, some conditions are best treated by combined treatment and other conditions are best treated by homeopathy."
Medical researchers, however, believe that at most homeopathy is an inexpensive placebo.
Jacobs J, et al. Homeopathic treatment of acute otitis media in children: a preliminary randomized placebo-controlled trial. J Infect Dis. 2001 Feb;20(2):177-83.
National Center for Homeopathy
Shang A, Huwiler-Muntener K, Nartey L, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet. 2005;366:726-32.
Sollars D. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeopathy. Alpha Books; 2001.
Last reviewed September 2005 by Steven Bratman, MD
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