I recently gave a short talk at the Woodfield Shopping Center and one of the people in the audience asked me about homeopathy. Ten to 15 years ago, homeopathy was a hot topic in medical circles, but since then it has faded into the background. After the lecture, I spent some time reviewing the current medical literature on homeopathy and learned that although it is not getting as much press, research in this area is robust.
Homeopathy is a medical system that, in many aspects, is the complete opposite of Western medicine. Homeopathy was the brainchild of the German physician, Samuel Hahnemann. He felt that you could eliminate the symptoms of an illness by using very dilute solutions of compounds (remedies) that, at higher concentrations, can cause the same symptoms as the illness. This is the "law of similars."
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The traditional medical approach is to use medications that do the opposite of the symptoms of the disease. For example, high blood pressure is treated by medications that cause low blood pressure. The result is normal blood pressure. The treatment of allergies, however, is different. The traditional medicine approach to allergies often combines the use of medications with injections of very dilute allergens (allergy shots) to blunt the allergic response.
Homeopathic remedies are not made the same way prescription drugs are made. These are prepared by a series of dilutions that are forcefully shaken before the next dilution. This is called succession. This process can continue until none of the original substance remains. Often, the more dilute the remedy, the stronger the effect. Since homeopathic remedies are so dilute, the chances for side effects and overdose are almost zero.
However, what is the evidence that homeopathic remedies actually work? Some studies suggest that homeopathy is no better than placebos and other studies indicate clinical success. The problem is that most studies were poorly done and lack proper controls. Also, a good homeopathic physician tailors the remedies for each specific patient, and the remedies change as the patient's symptoms change. This makes it difficult to do the usual randomized, controlled studies that are the foundation of drug research.
The lack of randomized and controlled clinical studies does not invalidate other clinical outcomes studies. Truth be told, much of what we do in traditional medicine is not based on randomized and controlled clinical studies.
The best results for homeopathy seem to be in the area of allergies and asthma. In these cases, there have been a number of randomized, controlled studies indicating a significant improvement when compared to placebos for seasonal allergies, allergic rhinitis and even asthma with homeopathic remedies. Test tube experiments, with no possibility of placebo effect, have also demonstrated improvements in various markers of allergy and asthma.
Homeopathy continues to be controversial. I have a number of patients who did well with homeopathic remedies (my own children's athletic bruises respond to Arnica), especially if prescribed by a homeopathic physician. However, do not stop taking any medication before talking with your physician.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D, is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.