Hahnemann concluded that it was quinine's ability to trigger malaria symptoms that made it a cure for the disease, and he began to test other substances on patients to 'prove' them. He called the practice homeopathy from the Greek ’homoios’ (the same) and ‘pathos’ (suffering). He observed that a smaller and smaller dose, say of the deadly plant belladonna used to treat scarlet fever, or even the poison arsenic, seemed to have a more specific effect on his patients.
Hahnemann's ideas spread throughout Europe and North America, and by 1844 there was an American Institute of Homeopathy. However, by the twentieth century scientific modern medicine was flourishing and the practice of homeopathy had all but disappeared in the Western world.
In the last twenty years or so more and more people have been turning to complementary medicine in general and homeopathy has become one of the most common practices.
How does homeopathy work?
No one is sure. Practitioners use vanishingly low doses of a compound or drug that, if given in large enough quantities, would cause the symptoms of the disease they are trying to cure. The homeopathic remedy Allium cepa, for instance, is made from an extract of onions. Onions, of course, make your eyes sting and water and your nose run when you peel and chop them. The homeopathic 'like for like' principle says that a disorder with these symptoms would be cured by a small dose of onion. So, homeopaths may use Allium cepa to treat hayfever.
The underlying idea is that the remedy, by causing symptoms, kick-starts the body into beginning the self-healing process. There are a wide variety of homeopathic preparations, including ones made from the deadly nightshade, belladonna, arnica, chamomile, mercury and sulphur, sepia (extracted from squid ink), snake venom and even compounds extracted from bodily fluids.
What happens during treatment?
As with other complementary health practitioners, a homeopath will usually ask about your lifestyle, eating habits, medical history and state of mind, and not simply look for symptoms. The idea is that a homeopathic remedy can then be tailored to your illness and your personality. After a diagnostic session a 'classical' homeopath would prescribe a unique remedy for you, based on your symptoms, personality and medical history. There are also practitioners known as 'complex' homeopaths, who base their prescriptions more on the overall disease. Two patients with similar illness might therefore be given the same prescription, but rather than being a uniquely selected medicine this would usually be a mixture of substances.
Homeopathic remedies may be given in the form of tablets, powders, tinctures, creams, ointments or solutions, together with advice on diet and lifestyle. Homeopaths will usually suggest you avoid strong-smelling substances and coffee, They might also advise you not to use certain aromatherapy oils or take herbal remedies while undergoing treatment. A fully qualified and registered homeopath will never recommend that you stop taking a prescribed medicine and would refer you back to your GP first.
What can homeopathy help with?
Homeopaths claim to be able to treat many illnesses, including:
Anxiety and panic attacks
Back pain and neuralgia
Coughs and colds and croup
Insect bites and stings
Irritable bowel syndrome
Menstrual and menopausal problems
Where's the evidence?
There have been lots of tests carried out to see whether homeopathy works, including trials with animals. Some of these have shown that for some problems, like hayfever, homeopathy seems to work better than placebo (dummy pills). However, many of the trials have been criticised as not being rigorous enough to prove anything. The British Medical Journal and the Lancet, two well-respected medical journals, have published reviews of several trials into homeopathy, and have still not provided a strong conclusion one way or the other.
The problem science has in explaining how homeopathy works is that the approach to making a treatment usually involve diluting the ingredients over and over again to the point where there might not even be a single molecule of the drug in the remedy given to a patient. Logically, scientists say, how can something have an effect if it is not there? Some practitioners believe the clue may lie in the fact that some aspects of modern science (such as quantum physics, for instance) appear beyond logic or common sense.
In the late 1980s, a French scientist, Jacques Benveniste, tried to show that although the original drug might not be present in a homeopathic remedy, it does leave a 'memory' in the water in which it was first dissolved and it is this 'memory' that causes the effect. Other scientists have failed to duplicate his experiments and the general consensus is that science would have to rewrite all the laws of physics and chemistry to make sense of homeopathic remedies leaving a ‘memory’.
What do doctors think about homeopathy?
Science cannot explain how homeopathy works, so many doctors are very sceptical about it. But there are others who practise homeopathy themselves, and homeopathy has been part of the NHS since this was established in 1948.
Some doctors believe that homeopathy does work, but that the scientific explanation is yet to be found. Indeed, there are about 1,000 doctors in the UK who practise homeopathy, prescribing remedies for acute conditions. There are also some 1,500 qualified homeopaths in the UK who have usually spent some three to four years in training to practise.
The medical profession is concerned by some of the practitioners who make recommendations to patients that may cause more problems than they solve. For instance, some suggest that it’s more dangerous to be vaccinated against a disease, whether the disease is a killer or not, than to risk catching it. Some mainstream doctors may agree, but the majority do not.
What should I look for in a practitioner?
Your doctor may be able to advise you on finding a qualified homeopath. It is important to see only a fully qualified and registered practitioner. Indeed, your GP may even practice homeopathy themselves or could refer you to one of the major homeopathic hospitals in Glasgow or London. The Faculty of Homeopathy in London can be contacted on 0171 566 7800 and at their web site http://www.trusthomeopathy.org. Members of the Faculty are all doctors and are listed in its register, so you can check to see whether your local homeopath is accredited or not. The Society of Homeopaths can be reached on 01604 621400. The Homeopathic Medicine Association can be reached on 01474 560336 or at http://www.the-hma.org/. The British Homeopathic Association can be reached on 0171 935 2163.
Andrew Lockie, consultant to this article, answers questions about homeopathy online at his web site at http://www.drlockie.com.