Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine first defined by Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century. Homeopathic practitioners contend that an ill person can be treated using a substance that can produce – in a healthy person – symptoms similar to those of the illness.
According to homeopaths, serial dilution, with shaking between each dilution, removes the toxic effects of the remedy while the qualities of the substance are retained by the diluent (water, sugar, or alcohol). The end product is often so diluted that it is indistinguishable from pure water, sugar or alcohol.
Detractors insist that common homeopathic
preparations are diluted beyond the point where there is any likelihood that molecules from the original solution are present in the final product. They claim that it is therefore scientifically implausible that these treatments still have any pharmacological
effect, and violate fundamental principles of science. Furthermore, they state that the number of high-quality studies that support homeopathy
is small, the conclusions are not definitive, and duplication of the results, a key test of scientific validity, has proven problematic at best.
The proposed rationale for these extreme dilutions – that the water contains the "memory" or "vibration" from the diluted ingredient – is counter to the laws of chemistry and physics. Other laws may exist, that are not yet known to science, of course. Critics contend that any positive results obtained from homeopathic
remedies are purely due to the placebo effect. They also suggest that homeopathy
is inherently dangerous, because homeopaths may offer a false hope that may discourage or delay 'proper' treatment.
Homeopathy has a strong following in India, where it is considered part of Indian traditional medicine. In the 1990s, between 5.9% and 7.5% of English family doctors reported prescribing homeopathic remedies, a figure rising to at least 12% in Scotland. In 2005, around 100,000 physicians used homeopathy worldwide, making it one of the most popular and widely-used complementary therapies.
In producing treatments for diseases, homeopaths use a process called "dynamisation" or "potentisation" whereby the remedy is diluted with alcohol or water and then vigorously shaken by ten hard strikes against an elastic body in a process called "succussion". During the process of potentisation, homeopaths believe that the vital energy of the diluted substance is activated and its energy released by vigorous shaking of the substance. Insoluble solids, such as quartz and oyster shell, are diluted by grinding them with lactose.
Three potency scales are in regular use in homeopathy
: the 'C Scale', 'X Scale' and 'Ratio'.
The centesimal, or "C scale", involves diluting a substance by a factor of 100 at each stage. A 2C dilution requires a substance to be diluted to one part in one hundred, and then some of that diluted solution is diluted by a further factor of one hundred. This works out to one part of the original solution mixed into 10,000 parts (100 x 100) of the diluent. Similarly, a 6C dilution repeats this process six times, ending up with the original material diluted by a factor of 1,000,000,000,000. (100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100, or 100^6). Higher dilutions follow the same pattern. In homeopathy
, a solution that is more dilute is described as having a higher potency. Higher potencies (that is, more dilute substances) are considered by homeopaths to be stronger and deeper-acting remedies.
30C is a common dilution. A popular homeopathic
treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver
, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum
Detractors would point out that the chance of a single molecule of the original substance remaining in a liter of 30C remedy dose is about one in 1.7 trillion trillion trillion (10^36). Another example given by a critic of homeopathy stated that a 12C solution is equivalent to a "pinch of salt in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans". One third of a drop of some original substance diluted into all the water on earth would produce a remedy with a concentration of about 13C.
Homeopaths maintain that the diluent retains some essential property of the original material, because the preparation has been shaken after each dilution. Even though the homeopathic remedies are often extremely diluted, homeopaths maintain that some healing force is retained by these homeopathic preparations.
Some homeopaths developed a decimal scale (D or X), diluting the substance to ten times its original volume each stage. The D or X scale dilution is therefore half that of the same value of the C scale; for example, "12X" is the same level of dilution as "6C".
Not all homeopaths advocate extremely high dilutions. Many of the early homeopaths were originally doctors and generally tended to use lower dilutions such as "3X" or "6X", rarely going beyond "12X".
Practitioners select treatments according to a patient consultation that explores the physical and psychological state of the patient, both of which are considered important to selecting the remedy.
In order to determine which specific remedies could be used to treat which diseases, homeopaths employ a process known as proving
. The process of proving involves healthy volunteers receiving remedies and compiling lists of the resulting symptoms into a "Drug Picture". During the process the volunteers are observed for months at a time and are made to keep extensive journals detailing all of their symptoms at specific times during the day.
A compilation of reports of many homeopathic
provings is known as a homeopathic materia medica
. In practice the usefulness of such a compilation is limited because a practitioner does not need to look up the symptoms for a particular remedy, but rather to explore the remedies for a particular symptom. This need is filled by the homeopathic repertory
, which is an index of symptoms, listing after each symptom those remedies that are associated with it. Repertories are often very extensive and may include data from clinical experience in addition to provings. There is often lively debate among the compilers of a repertory and interested practitioners over the veracity of a particular inclusion.
Homeopaths generally begin with detailed examinations of their patient's history, including questions regarding their physical, mental and emotional states, their life circumstances and any physical/emotional illnesses. The homeopath then attempts to translate this information into a complex formula of mental and physical symptoms, including likes, dislikes, innate predispositions and even body type.
The goal is to develop a comprehensive representation of each individual's overall health. This information can then be compared with similar lists in the drug provings found in the homeopathic
materia medica. Assisted by further dialog with the patient, the homeopath then aims to find the one remedy most closely matching the "symptom totality" of the patient. There are many methods for determining the most-similar remedy (the simillimum
), and homeopaths sometimes disagree. This is partly due to the insurmountable complexity of the "totality of symptoms" concept. That is, homeopaths do not use all symptoms, but decide for themselves which are the most characteristic. This subjective evaluation of case analysis relies on knowledge and experience of the homeopath doing the diagnosis.
Some diversity in approaches to treatments exists among homeopaths. So called "classical" homeopathy
generally involves detailed examinations of a patient's history and infrequent doses of a single remedy as the patient is monitored for improvements in symptoms. While "clinical" homeopathy involves combinations of remedies to address the various symptoms of an illness.
Homeopathy uses many animal, plant, mineral, and synthetic substances in its remedies. Examples include Natrum muriaticum
chloride; table salt), Lachesis muta
(the venom of the bushmaster snake), Opium
, and Thyroidinum
Homeopaths also use treatments called nosodes
made from diseased or pathological products such as fecal, urinary, and respiratory discharges
, blood, and tissue. Homeopathic remedies prepared from healthy specimens are called sarcodes
remedies usually contain only water, sugar, lactose and/or alcohol, they are thought to be generally safe, with rare exceptions. For example, an unusually undiluted (1:100 or "2X") solution of zinc
gluconate, marketed as Zicam Nasal Spray, allegedly caused a small percentage of users to lose their sense of smell.