The following is a brief outline of homeopathy. More detailed information is available on other pages.
Homeopathy is a scientific system of medicine which uses the body's own ability to make itself well. Based on the principle that “like cures like”, homeopaths give a medicine (a remedy) which is able to produce very similar symptoms in a healthy person. This is how the system has got its name, because the word ‘homeopathy’ comes from the Greek words for ‘similar’ (homoios) and ‘suffering’ (pathos). Some conventional medicines are used for conditions which can have a homeopathic relationship to the drug, such as quinine for malaria, silver nitrate for neonatal conjunctivitis, coal tar for psoriasis, or gold for arthritis. It should be emphasised, however, that homeopaths base treatment on the totality of the symptoms of the patient, not on a general disease definition.
Of course, the concern when giving medicines which are known to make people ill is that they will make the patient more ill rather than better, so Samuel Hahnemann (who discovered, tested and formulated the principles) tried to identify the smallest possible dose he could use successfully. In doing so he stumbled on a curious phenomenon: the medicines worked more strongly if they were banged (succussed) each time he diluted them. He called this process potentisation, and he spent decades investigating the relationship between dilution and succussion in order to improve the action of the medicines. The two main methods he developed have very different modes of action.
One advantage of this approach is that medicines can be prepared which have powerful medicinal properties when they are appropriate to the case, but are so dilute as to have no chemical or toxic effects. These potencies produce no side effects; they have no effect if inappropriate; and it is not possible to take an overdose, though repeatedly taking a remedy in the same potency can lead to a proving of the medicine (experiencing the symptoms it can cause).
Another example of the rigour with which Hahnemann approached medical treatment was his insistence that only a single medicine should be given at a time. He argued that the interactions between the different medicines and the sick person were incalculable, and so it would be impossible to determine the cause of any failure or difficulty resulting from treatment if more than one medicine were taken at a time.
The success of homeopathy, both in theory and in practice, meant that other discoveries became possible. Hahnemann not only recognised that some illnesses were the result of infection by living organisms (which he called miasms), but also discovered that suppression of some infectious diseases could lead to the development of other chronic (long term) illnesses. In these cases the same patient might seem to suffer a number of apparently unconnected illnesses over time, when in fact each was part of a single progession. Using the homeopathic approach, Hahnemann was then able to find medicines which had a similar pattern of illnesses, and which were therfore able to treat the underlying predisposition to illness.
Homeopaths’ attention to the detail of patients’ medical histories and patterns of recovery meant that it became possible for the first time to hypothesise a natual law of health and disease, known as Hering’s law of cure. This general law has continued to prove itself a valid means of understanding changes in health, and it has enabled homeopaths to make two major advances. Firstly, they can observe, analyse and treat illnesses in an individual as a long-term process rather than as separate states. Secondly, it has enabled practitioners to assess objectively in individual cases the success of any treatment. As such it offers the first scientific means of defining effectiveness.
Of course, the explanation above begs the question: "Why, if it is so good, is homeopathy not used more?" In fact homeopathy is widely used, and in some countries (such as India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Brazil) it is a basic part of healthcare. At the same time homeopathy has always posed a problem for manufacturers (initially apothecaries and now pharmaceutical companies) because its medicines are extremely cheap, both in terms of materials and preparation. This has meant that there is a serious conflict between homeopathy and the drive for profits, and the history of homeopathy is full of incidents where the argument for scientific truth has been overwhelmed by vested interests.