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Questions and Answers About Homeopathy
1. What is homeopathy?
The term homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo, meaning similar, and pathos, meaning suffering or disease. Homeopathy is an alternative medical system. Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice, and often have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional medical approach used in the United States. Homeopathy takes a different approach from conventional medicine in diagnosing, classifying, and treating medical problems.
Key concepts of homeopathy include:
a. Conventional medicine, as defined by NCCAM, is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees and by their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Some conventional medical practitioners are also practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine. To find out more about these terms, see the NCCAM fact sheet "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?"
2. What is the history of the discovery and use of homeopathy?
In the late 1700s, Samuel Hahnemann, a physician, chemist, and linguist in Germany, proposed a new approach to treating illness. This was at a time when the most common medical treatments were harsh, such as bloodletting,c purging, blistering, and the use of sulfur and mercury. At the time, there were few effective medications for treating patients, and knowledge about their effects was limited.
Hahnemann was interested in developing a less-threatening approach to medicine. The first major step reportedly was when he was translating an herbal text and read about a treatment (cinchona bark) used to cure malaria. He took some cinchona bark and observed that, as a healthy person, he developed symptoms that were very similar to malaria symptoms. This led Hahnemann to consider that a substance may create symptoms that it can also relieve. This concept is called the "similia principle" or "like cures like." The similia principle had a prior history in medicine, from Hippocrates in Ancient Greece--who noted, for example, that recurrent vomiting could be treated with an emetic (such as ipecacuanha) that would be expected to make it worse--to folk medicine. Another way to view "like cures like" is that symptoms are part of the body's attempt to heal itself--for example, a fever can develop as a result of an immune response to an infection, and a cough may help to eliminate mucus--and medication may be given to support this self-healing response.
Hahnemann tested single, pure substances on himself and, in more dilute forms, on healthy volunteers. He kept meticulous records of his experiments and participants' responses, and he combined these observations with information from clinical practice, the known uses of herbs and other medicinal substances, and toxicology, eventually treating the sick and developing homeopathic clinical practice.
Hahnemann added two additional elements to homeopathy:
Hans Burch Gram, a Boston-born doctor, studied homeopathy in Europe and introduced it into the United States in 1825. European immigrants trained in homeopathy also made the treatment increasingly available in America. In 1835, the first homeopathic medical college was established in Allentown, Pennsylvania. By the turn of the 20th century, 8 percent of all American medical practitioners were homeopaths, and there were 20 homeopathic medical colleges and more than 100 homeopathic hospitals in the United States.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous medical advances were made, such as the recognition of the mechanisms of disease; Pasteur's germ theory; the development of antiseptic techniques; and the discovery of ether anesthesia. In addition, a report (the so-called "Flexner Report") was released that triggered major changes in American medical education. Homeopathy was among the disciplines negatively affected by these developments. Most homeopathic medical schools closed down, and by the 1930s others had converted to conventional medical schools.
In the 1960s, homeopathy's popularity began to revive in the United States. According to a 1999 survey of Americans and their health, over 6 million Americans had used homeopathy in the preceding 12 months. The World Health Organization noted in 1994 that homeopathy had been integrated into the national health care systems of numerous countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. Several schools of practice exist within homeopathy.
Persons using homeopathy do so to address a range of health concerns, from wellness and prevention to treatment of injuries, diseases, and conditions. Studies have found that many people who seek homeopathic care seek it for help with a chronic medical condition. Many users of homeopathy treat themselves with homeopathic products and do not consult a professional.
b. Items 1-13 in the references served as general sources for this historical discussion.
c. Bloodletting was a healing practice used for many centuries. In bloodletting, incisions were made in the body to drain a quantity of blood, in the belief that this would help drain out the "bad blood" or sickness.
d. Toxicology is the science of the effects of chemicals on human health.
3. What kind of training do homeopathic practitioners receive?
In European countries, training in homeopathy is usually pursued either as a primary professional degree completed over 3 to 6 years or as postgraduate training for doctors. In the United States, training in homeopathy is offered through diploma programs, certificate programs, short courses, and correspondence courses. Also, homeopathic training is part of medical education in naturopathy. Most homeopathy in the United States is practiced along with another health care practice for which the practitioner is licensed, such as conventional medicine, naturopathy, chiropractic, dentistry, acupuncture, or veterinary medicine (homeopathy is used to treat animals).
Laws about what is required to practice homeopathy vary among states. Three states (Connecticut, Arizona, and Nevada) license medical doctors specifically for homeopathy.
e. Naturopathy, also known as naturopathic medicine, is an alternative medical system that emphasizes natural healing approaches (such as herbs, nutrition, and movement or manipulation of the body). Some elements of naturopathy are similar to homeopathy, such as an intent to support the body's own self-healing response.
4. What do homeopathic practitioners do in treating patients?
Typically, in homeopathy, patients have a lengthy first visit, during which the provider takes an in-depth assessment of the patient. This is used to guide the selection of one or more homeopathic remedies. During followup visits, patients report how they are responding to the remedy or remedies, which helps the practitioner make decisions about further treatment.
5. What are homeopathic remedies?
Most homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals. A remedy is prepared by diluting the substance in a series of steps (as discussed in Question 2). Homeopathy asserts that this process can maintain a substance's healing properties regardless of how many times it has been diluted. Many homeopathic remedies are so highly diluted that not one molecule of the original natural substance remains. Remedies are sold in liquid, pellet, and tablet forms.
6. How does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate homeopathic remedies?
Because of their long use in the United States, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1938 declaring that homeopathic remedies are to be regulated by the FDA in the same manner as nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, which means that they can be purchased without a physician's prescription. Today, although conventional prescription drugs and new OTC drugs must undergo thorough testing and review by the FDA for safety and effectiveness before they can be sold, this requirement does not apply to homeopathic remedies.
Remedies are required to meet certain legal standards for strength, quality, purity, and packaging. In 1988, the FDA required that all homeopathic remedies list the indications for their use (i.e., the medical problems to be treated) on the label. The FDA also requires the label to list ingredients, dilutions, and instructions for safe use.
The guidelines for homeopathic remedies are found in an official guide, the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, which is authored by a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization of industry representatives and homeopathic experts. The Pharmacopoeia also includes provisions for testing new remedies and verifying their clinical effectiveness. Remedies on the market before 1962 have been accepted into the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States based on historical use, rather than scientific evidence from clinical trials.