Homeopathy 1: – What is it?

Homeopathy is available under the National Health Service in certain hospitals. As well as medically qualified homeopaths, there are also “lay homeopaths” and training is available for both medical and non-medically qualified homeopaths.

The word homeopathy is often understood to be synonymous with natural medicine. In fact it is a very specific form of medical therapeutics which was discovered by a physician called Samuel Hahnemann in the early 19th Century.

During Hahnemann’s time medicine was at a very primitive stage with frequent use of bleeding and leeches for most conditions. One of the few medicines that were very effective was quinine in treatment of malaria. Hahnemann decided to experiment by taking some quinine himself. To his astonishment he found himself developing the typical relapsing fever of malaria. Thus he had discovered the central principle of homeopathy – of likes being able to treat likes, or that medicines capable of curing symptoms are also able to produce those same symptoms in a healthy person. Homeopathy means “like disease”.

Homeopathy and conventional medicine

Homeopathy is by no means a complete alternative system of therapeutics to conventional medicine. In my opinion there is no alternative system of therapeutics to conventional medicine. There is no alternative to antibiotics in meningitis, surgery for appendicitis, chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease and there are many other examples where any alternative to conventional treatment has no place at all. However, in many disorders where there is no immediate risk of mortality or irreversible damage to the tissues, homeopathy can often be useful in acute and chronic conditions such as viral infections, headaches, premenstrual tension, irritable bowl syndrome, arthritis, migraine, headaches, eczema, and many others.

Stimulating the immune sytem

In homeopathic medicine, we are treating the whole person rather than the disease itself. The human body has an innate healing ability which can be stimulated by a homeopathic remedy. The aim is to stimulate the immune system to fight the illness. Therefore, in prescribing a remedy, we take into consideration many features of the patient as well as a detailed history of the main complaint. Homeopathic doctors ask their patients about the foods they like or dislike, what side of the body they sleep on, whether they like sympathy when they are ill or whether they want to be left alone, and much more. The history alone often takes an hour as the doctor builds a detailed profile of both illness and patient. Finally a homeopathic remedy is prescribed to suit both patient and symptoms.

The remedies come from over 2,000 sources including herbs, metals and poisons, and they are used in very minute dilutions. The medicines are far too dilute to cause harmful effects, but homeopaths believe they are capable of giving the body the specific stimulus it needs to initiate a healing response. Rather than treating the disease, we are encouraging the body to heal itself. How homeopathic remedies do this remains a mystery, but in practise they appear to be effective.

Is homeopathy a placebo response?

The opponents of homeopathy claim that homeopathic medicines are too dilute to cure, and if they do appear to work, then homeopathy works by the placebo effect. There are two responses to this. Firstly, if a successful placebo effect has taken place then surely this is a preferred method than a toxic alternative from conventional medicine? Secondly, there have been some double-blind trials proving the effectiveness of homeopathy – one shows that the remedies are statistically more effective than placebo. Readers are referred to a major article in the British Medical Journal which reviews 107 clinical trails of homeopathic medicine.

Safe medicines

Homeopathic remedies are very safe medicines and they can be used in pregnancy and for very young babies. Side-effects are almost non-existent although very occasionally the patient’s symptoms are aggravated before they improve. They can safely be given alongside orthodox medication and there is no reason why first-aid homeopathy cannot be prescribed by qualified nurses.

The remedies may be prescribed as powders, pills or tinctures. They dissolve easily in the mouth and are pleasant-tasting and therefore popular with children. They can safely be taken in conjunction with orthodox medication. In general, homeopathic doctors would not alter their patients’ existing medications initially. It is prudent to advise the patient to remain on all their current treatment and to take the homeopathic remedy in addition. When the symptoms improve one can consider slowly weaning patients off their conventional medicine (with their general practitioner’s knowledge and consent, of course).

Medical, lay and “classical” homeopaths

Homeopathy is practised in the UK by a wide variety of people. The Faculty of homeopathy has a membership examination for doctors, MFHom, which indicates proficiency in homeopathic prescribing. People in the UK are entitled by an Act of Parliament to homeopathic medicine, prescribed by medical doctors, on the National Health Service. This can be obtained at NHS hospitals in London and Glasgow as well as homeopathic clinics in several other cities. All that is required is a referral form from the patient’s general practitioner. The Faculty can provide lists of the growing number of homeopathic doctors in private practise.

In addition there are many practising homeopaths who are not medical doctors. They are sometimes referred to as “lay homeopaths” or “professional homeopaths” and there are over 20 colleges in the UK for people wishing to train in homeopathy.

“Classical” homeopathy implies the prescription of one homeopathic remedy for the patient at any single occasion, based on the principle of “likes curing likes”. The purists will assert that this is the only form of homeopathy. However, homeopathic remedies are sometimes prescribed using all sorts of diagnostic machines which tend not be trusted by classical homeopaths.

Self-prescribed medicines tend to have variable success and a visit to a homeopath is generally recommended for all conditions besides very basic first aid. Many homeopathic remedies are available over the counter to the general public. Some are actually recommended for specific conditions such as diarrhoea or headaches. These may be single homeopathic remedies or combinations of many remedies.

Homeopathy has been patronised by The Royal Family for many generations in this country and is enjoying a major resurgence worldwide. Together with acupuncture, osteopathy and chiropractic it is one of the four most widely sought forms of alternative medicine in the UK.

Nurses and homeopathy

Nurses are able to work and learn about homeopathy at various NHS homeopathic hospitals in this country but are not admitted to be trained to be homeopathic prescribers by the Faculty of Homeopathy. However, it is possible for nurses to study homeopathy part-time at other homeopathic instutiomns. The training of nurses encourages “whole person” -orientated medicine, and this is a very good starter for nurses to begin their study of homeopathy.