Homeopathic medicine, or homeopathy, is a holistic system of treatment that originated in the late eighteenth century. The name homeopathy is derived fromtwo Greek words that mean "like disease" because the system is based on thenotion that a medicine capable of curing a disease will mimic or imitate itssymptoms. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founder of homeopathic medicine, used the Latin phrase similia similibus curentur, or "let likebe cured with like," to summarize the underlying principle of his system. Homeopaths use the term allopathy, or "other disease," to describe the use of drugs in conventional medicine to oppose or counteract the symptom being treated.
Hahnemann was trained in the standard medical practice of his day and licensed as a physician in 1779. In 1796, he gave up his practice because he was disturbed by the poor results of orthodox medical treatment. He supported himself by working as a translator of medical texts. While translating an English physician's research on a treatment for malaria, Hahnemann experimentedon himself with small doses of the drug until he developed symptoms resembling malaria. He concluded that the substance's curative powers came from its ability to produce symptoms resembling those of its target disease. Hahnemann's reasoning was similar to that of Edward Jenner, who discovered the principle of vaccination in 1798 by observing that exposure to a mild form of pox conferred immunity against smallpox, a deadly disease withsimilar symptoms.
Hahnemann followed up his experiment by studying local records of accidentalpoisonings from commonly used medications. He found that when these substances were taken in overdose, they produced symptoms similar to those of the diseases for which they were given. For example, mercury was used to treat syphilis, but could cause syphilis-like ulcers in high doses. Hahnemann referred to his discovery as "the law of similars." By this, he meant that substances producing specific symptoms when given to healthy people in sufficient quantity could heal sick people of similar symptoms when given in highly diluted forms.
The purpose of homeopathy is the restoration of the body to homeostasis, or healthy balance, which is considered its natural state. The symptoms of a disease are regarded as the body's own defensive attempt to correct its imbalance, rather than as enemies to be defeated. Because a homeopath regards symptomsas evidence of the body's inner intelligence, he or she will prescribe a remedy designed to stimulate this internal curative process rather than suppressthe symptoms.
The holistic nature of homeopathic treatment means that practitioners do notfocus on isolated symptoms when treating patients. Even if the patient seekshelp for only one illness, such as a cold or a skin rash, the homeopath willevaluate the disorder in the context of the patient's overall physical and psychological characteristics. It is thought that a careful assessment of all the patient's symptoms over the course of years will reflect a basic weaknessspecific to that person's constitution. In acute treatment, which is given for colds, vomiting, fever, and similar problems, the homeopath selectsa remedy on the basis of the patient's symptomatic reactions to recent stresses in his or her life.
The first stage in homeopathic treatment is the practitioner's detailed notation of the patient's symptoms. Homeopathic case-taking includes not only thesymptoms directly associated with the illness but other physical complaints that the patient may have and his or her psychological reactions. Homeopathy uses the word symptom in a broader sense than mainstream medicine. In homeopathy, symptoms include any physical or emotional change observed during the course of an illness. In addition to noting the location and severity of the symptoms, the homeopath will ask about the circumstances or factors (e.g., weather, time of day, behavior or activity, etc.) that make the symptom either better or worse.
The practitioner will choose the medication by matching the patient's symptomprofile with the symptoms that the remedy has been proved to cause in healthy people. Dose repetition or change of medication is based on observation ofthe patient's response.
A homeopathic medication is formulated by preparing what is called a mother tincture, which is made by soaking plant, animal, or mineral materials in a solution of alcohol. The mother tincture is then diluted with either 10 or 100parts of alcohol. The process of dilution is repeated many times in order toachieve the desired potency.
There are few risks associated with homeopathic treatment in the United States. In terms of training, some homeopaths are licensed graduates of conventional medical schools in many fields. Others are naturopaths and registered nurses. In addition, there are lay practitioners of homeopathy whose practice should be more limited than licensed professionals.
The heavily diluted remedies used in homeopathy are safe in terms of their chemical composition and have fewer side effects than conventional medications.However, symptoms may briefly worsen when a remedy is first used. A number of practitioners have written books emphasizing the limitations of homeopathichome treatment. The complexity of the case-taking process and determining the appropriate prescriptions persuade most patients to consult practitioners for serious illnesses rather than attempting to treat themselves.