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Homeopathy, a method of treatment founded by a German physician in the late 1800s, relies on a theory known as the "law of similars" — the notion that doses of a substance can cause a symptom, but the same substance, in minuscule amounts, can cure the symptom. While homeopathy is relatively safe, it should be a complement to, not a substitute for, standard medical care. It is also a highly controversial form of medicine because it lacks a scientific explanation for why its treatments might work.

Homeopathic remedies consist of highly diluted preparations of natural ingredients. The ingredient may be diluted 30 to 50 times, sometimes to the point where no molecules of active ingredient remain. There is no plausible scientific explanation to support homeopathy, but some proponents suggest that the molecules of the substance leave a kind of memory or frequency in the water and that the body responds to that.

Many observers believe that any effectiveness is due to the placebo effect, a well-documented medical phenomenon in which patients given a treatment with no active ingredient often get better. But an analysis of 89 clinical trials published in a major medical journal, The Lancet, in 1997 found that the clinical effects of homeopathy are not entirely due to placebo effect. On the other hand, the same researchers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to regard homeopathy as effective for any single clinical condition.

A 1991 analysis of 105 clinical trials published in the British Medical Journal found that 81 of the studies showed positive clinical results while 24 found no positive effect from homeopathic treatment. The researchers concluded that the evidence was positive but insufficient to draw any conclusion regarding the efficacy of homeopathic treatment, and they recommended that additional well-designed studies be undertaken.

Homeopathy in Practice

Homeopathy relies on the belief that living things have a vital life force that, when stimulated by the subtle energy of the correct remedy, will help provoke the body to heal itself. This theory is sometimes compared to the theory of Qi in traditional Chinese medicine.

Homeopathy is widely practiced in Europe and enjoyed popularity in the United States until it faded in the 1930s. By the 1970s, however, it experienced a revival and has continued to grow in popularity since then. Homeopathic remedies can now be found on the shelves of retail stores alongside other over-the-counter medications. Homeopathic medicines are classified and regulated by the FDA as OTC drugs. A wide variety of holistic healers use homeopathic remedies as part of their practice. Homeopaths, naturopaths, herbalists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, midwives and even some medical doctors may recommend homeopathic remedies.

Visiting a Homeopathic Practitioner

If you choose to visit a homeopathic practitioner, your first visit will usually involve an interview with the practitioner, who will ask you about your health, lifestyle, preferences, and symptoms. Once the practitioner has fully assessed your condition, he or she is likely to choose from hundreds of possible homeopathic preparations to find the right remedy. Treatment may also include advice on diet and lifestyle.

More often than not, the remedy will take the form of a small pill to be placed under the tongue and dissolved, although remedies may also take the form of a tincture, or cream. While a classical homeopathic practitioner may prescribe only one remedy at a time to determine the correct prescription for your symptoms, other practitioners may prescribe a combination of remedies, herbals, or other treatments. Chronic illnesses are often treated with a series of treatments over the long term.

If You Choose Homeopathy

Most states have no licensing requirement for the practice of homeopathic medicine, and many different kinds of practitioners dispense homeopathic remedies. The National Center for Homeopathy has a list of certifying organizations and a directory of practitioners.

Some Cautions

Homeopathic remedies are generally so dilute that they pose no safety concerns. The main caution regarding homeopathy involves the reliance on this method as a substitute for conventional medical care. Homeopathy may serve as a complement, but not as a substitute for your standard medical care, particularly if you have a potentially life-threatening condition such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease, diabetes, or cancer.

Steer clear of homeopathic practitioners who claim that your prescription medications will interfere with your homeopathic treatment. Never discontinue the medication your doctor prescribes on the advice of a homeopathic practitioner without talking with your medical doctor first. Some homeopathic practitioners discourage parents from having their children immunized against childhood diseases. Failing to immunize a child is dangerous to the child as well as to the population at large.


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Source: from "Alternative Medicine", Harvard Health Publications, Copyright © March 2001 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Used with permission of StayWell.

Last updated March 11, 2002

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