Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, developed homeopathy in the late eighteenth century. He did so because of his dissatisfaction with the conventional medicine of his time.
Hahnemann suggested two key principles. First, he asserted that “like cures like.” In other words, a substance that produces certain symptoms in a healthy person can be used to cure similar symptoms in a sick person. Second, he claimed that very small doses of a remedy would be effective. Hahnemann diluted the remedies in a process he named potentization. He would take an original natural substance and dilute it numerous times. Between each dilution, he would shake the remedy. Shaking supposedly released the cure’s healing energy.
A 1991 study in the British Medical Journal investigated 107 controlled trials of homeopathy. The researchers concluded: “At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias. This indicates that there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homoeopathy, but only by means of well-performed trials.”
A 1990 study published in Revue d’Epidemiologie et de Sante Publique investigated 40 randomized trials involving homeopathy. The researchers concluded that the evidence did not show homeopathy to be effective. In 1994 the National Council Against Health Fraud, a U.S.-based organization, advised consumers not to buy homeopathic products or to patronize homeopathic practitioners. In addition, they stated, “Basic scientists are urged to be proactive in opposing the marketing of homeopathic remedies because of conflicts with known physical laws. Those who study homeopathic remedies are warned to beware of deceptive practices in addition to applying sound research methodologies.”
A 2005 study published in Lancet analyzed 110 homeopathy trials and 110 conventional medicine trials. The researchers concluded “there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
Brien and colleagues (2010) conducted a study to assess whether benefits from adjunctive homeopathic intervention in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are due to the homeopathic consultation, homeopathic remedies or both. The researchers found that homeopathic consultations were associated with clinically relevant benefits for patients with active but relatively stable RA. Homeopathic remedies were not associated with benefits.
Very few studies validating homeopathy’s efficacy have appeared in major medical journals. Most positive studies have appeared in nonscientific journals, and have been subject to bias, or have had a poor research design. The overwhelming majority of data appearing in scientific journals shows that homeopathy is an ineffective treatment for any clinical condition.
Why do people turn to homeopathic treatment? In many cases they do not trust physicians or the expensive drugs that are often prescribed. Some people feel like physicians are not really interested in them personally, especially if they can’t find anything wrong with the patient, or if the diagnosis doesn’t match with what they think it should. Not hearing what the patient knows is right may be taken offensively. Physicians, generally, do not spend much time talking with the patient, which further supports the patient feeling the doctor’s lack of interest. If the physician doesn’t find anything wrong this may further offend the patient.
A visit to a homeopathy practitioner may take 45 minutes to an hour. The homeopathy practitioner asks numerous questions and appears to be genuinely concerned with the patient’s personal life. The homeopathy practitioner designs the remedy to suit the unique individual, which furthers the patient’s confidence in the remedy. Homeopathy is alluring to both the patient and practitioner. They become partners in fighting this terrible condition. The benefits of homeopathy are not the remedies, but the consultations (increasing placebo effects) associated with homeopathy (see Brien et al. above).
Brien, S., Lachance, L., Prescott, P., McDermott, C., & Lewith, G. (2010). Homeopathy has clinical benefits in rheumatoid arthritis patients that are attributable to the consultation process but not the homeopathic remedy: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Rheumatology (Oxford) Nov.13.
Hill, C. and F. Doyon. 1990. Review of randomized trials of homeopathy. Revue d’Epidemiologie et de Sante Publique 38 (2): 139–47.
Kleijnen, J. et al. 1991. Clinical trials of homeopathy. BMJ 302 (6772): 316–23.
National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. NCAH F position paper on homeopathy. http://www.ncahf.org/pp/homeop.html (accessed November 25, 2010).
Shang, A. et al. 2005. Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy and allopathy. Lancet 366 (9487): 726–32.
Wagner, M. W. 2002. Is homeopathy “new science” or “new age”? Homeowatch. http://www.homeowatch.org/articles/wagner.html (accessed November 25, 2010).