This page gives a brief introductory outline of homeopathy. For more specific questions about it, including the supposition that its effect is merely that of placebo, see the Myths & Misconceptions page.
What is Homeopathy? Its history and development
2,500 years ago Hippocrates noted that there are essentially two ways to use medicines: as contraries (producing the opposite effect to the symptom) or as similars (producing the same effect as the symptom).
Homeopathy is based on the use of similars – like cures like – and was first developed around 200 years ago by Dr Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann was a German doctor, chemist and linguist who had become so horrified by the medical practices of his day that he was determined to find a method that was more successful and less interventionist in its approach. Homeopathy (from the Greek homeo = of the same kind, like, similar, and pathos = suffering) is a complete system of medicine which uses a more extensive and integrated model of health and disease than conventional medicine, as well as having a different approach to treatment and its own pharmacy. Its principles have stood the test of time, and Hahnemann’s observations on the nature of health and disease have as much validity today as they did in his own time.
Instead of attempting to relieve symptoms by giving drugs which have an opposing action (for instance, an analgesic to treat a headache), homeopathy mirrors your complaint by matching all your symptoms with a remedy which produces a similar range of effects. While this concept may seem a little paradoxical to our way of thinking, it can address the presenting symptoms every bit as effectively as taking, say, a painkiller or antibiotic.
There is naturally a wide variation in how individual homeopaths practice in different parts of the world. Some practice homeopathy alone, some in combination with other therapies. How remedies are used also varies. Some prescribe single remedies, some mix several in one prescription, some will base treatment on a plan involving repetition of several in sequence; and there are many variations in between. Homeopaths such as myself practice in a manner which is easily recognisable in the context of Hahnemann’s original methods. (You might see that referred to as the "classical" method, though for caveats on the terminology, see here.) The main distinguishing feature of this method from the point of view of the patient is that only one remedy is given at a time.
Homeopathy treats illness on the basis that when a person falls ill, it’s the whole person that falls ill, not just their stomach or their liver or wherever the problem occurs. It takes account of individual susceptibility to illness, recognising that even epidemics do not affect every person equally or in exactly the same way. It’s important to realise that there are no specific remedies for specific problems, even if (as in the case of Arnica for bruising) there are some remedies which, in a first aid situation, will provide some relief to the majority of people in most instances.
Instead of treating such diverse complaints as, say, a stomach ulcer, asthma, depression, and a tendency to recurring headaches separately, a classical homeopath will look for a single remedy that covers them all. Surprising though it may seem, there will often be several remedies featuring such disparate complaints, so the correct remedy is arrived at by focusing on precise details of how the symptoms of each complaint are experienced. (Taking this example, if the headaches were pounding and relieved by a cold compress or cold air – rather exceptionally as in most other instances the person feels worse in the cold – most likely the remedy Arsenicum album would be of benefit.)
Many people’s first experience of homeopathy is in first aid situations, often in discovering the effectiveness of Arnica for bruising. But it’s in the area of recurring problems or chronic complaints that homeopathy really comes into its own.
We tend to see germs, imbalances in body chemistry or function, allergens, pollution, drugs, poor environment, bad diet, stress, overwork, etc, as the causes of illness, and try to remove them or counteract their effects. All these things can undoubtedly produce symptoms in their own right, but a homeopath regards them equally as part of the overall symptom picture. After all, things that trigger serious illness in some people leave others totally unaffected.
Each individual’s lack of resistance to what produces illness in them is what forms the focus of treatment. So for someone who gets frequent colds, it’s the susceptibility to repeated infection that will be treated, rather than just the symptoms of the cold. Any other symptoms – of whatever nature – will also be taken into account. Consequently, people suffering from similar complaints all receive individual (and probably different) treatment, reflecting the individual aspects of their illness, as well as the symptoms they have in common.
Homeopathic treatment can work alongside conventional medicine without harmful drug interactions. It can help reduce dependency on long-term drug regimes, and allow you to cope better with the side-effects of such treatment.
A consultation with a professional homeopath is a somewhat different experience to the consultations many people are accustomed to having with their medical advisors. Where long-standing, recurring or complex conditions are involved, an initial consultation may take as long as two hours. The homeopath will want to know not just the symptoms themselves, but when they appear, where, what they feel like, what makes them better or worse, how long you’ve experienced them, other symptoms they appear to be connected with, what treatment you’ve had or are having for them, and so on. Your medical history, your family’s medical history, and how you feel about and cope with life in general are also important.
Most of us have an innate wisdom about the nature of our illness – sometimes without even realising it – but often our thoughts, feelings and observations about particular features of our symptoms have no perceived relevance or diagnostic value to a medical doctor. For a homeopath, these things are not only relevant but are often the key to finding the best remedy – as in the Arsenicum album example above.
If you're considering homeopathic treatment for the first time or are about to attend your first consultation, you may like to take a more detailed look at the sort of information a homeopath will be looking for and spend some time thinking about it to get the most out of your consultation. Click here for a consultation check-list.
By virtue of the way they’re prepared, homeopathic medicines don’t damage the body and have no ‘side-effects’. They come from an enormous variety of sources – plants, animals, elements, minerals and other chemical compounds, even radiant energy – and new remedies are being tested all the time. But although they’re prepared from substances that may be used in other forms of medicine – herbs, for instance – it’s important to realise that the similarity ends there.
The remedies are prepared in such a way as to remove all toxic chemical effects. This method (called potentisation) progressively agitates and dilutes the source material, often way beyond the point where any physical trace of it can be detected. The scepticism of much of the scientific establishment over the years has revolved around this process because, as yet, there’s no theoretical model capable of explaining how the remedies work (although promising work is emerging from areas such as materials science based on the structure-property relationship of water).
However, remedies patently do have an effect – often a very powerful one, as anyone who has had a successful prescription will confirm. Our lack of understanding of the precise mechanisms involved in this process remains, but scepticism is now beginning to give way in the face of clinical trials demonstrating homeopathy’s effectiveness (see Research), new understanding gained from advances in physics, and the continually mounting case history showing the benefits that people have experienced under treatment.
To find out just what effects a remedy is capable of producing (and hence curing), each new remedy is potentised and put through a process known as a “proving”.
A group of people in a reasonable state of health volunteer to take repeated doses of the remedy until they start to experience symptoms from it. They record these symptoms (whether physical, mental or emotional) throughout the duration of the proving, and once it becomes apparent that the remedy’s action is finished, these symptoms are collected, collated and exhaustively analysed and compared. From the collective experience, the symptoms of the remedy are ascertained and these are then published so that practicing homeopaths are able to start using it in appropriate cases.
Additional symptoms cured by the remedy in practice are added to the proving symptoms over time, eventually resulting in a comprehensive understanding of the remedy which allows a practitioner to readily recognise a patient who needs it.