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Alternative Medical Systems

Homeopathic Medicine

Definition

Homeopathic medicine, or homeopathy, is a holistic system of treatment that originated in the late eighteenth century. The name homeopathy is derived from two Greek words that mean "like disease" because the system is based on the notion that a medicine capable of curing a disease will mimic or imitate its symptoms. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founder of homeopathic medicine, used the Latin phrase similia similibus curentur, or "let like be cured with like," to summarize the underlying principle of his system. Homeopaths use the term allopathy, or "other disease," to describe the use of drugs in conventional medicine to oppose or counteract the symptom being treated.

Hahnemann was trained in the standard medical practice of his day and licensed as a physician in 1779. In 1796, he gave up his practice because he was disturbed by the poor results of orthodox medical treatment. He supported himself by working as a translator of medical texts. In the course of translating an English physician's research on a treatment for malaria, Hahnemann experimented on himself with small doses of the drug until he responded to it by developing symptoms resembling malaria. He concluded that the curative powers of the substance were derived from its ability to produce symptoms resembling those of its target disease. Hahnemann's reasoning was similar to that of Edward Jenner, who discovered the principle of vaccination in 1798 by observing that exposure to a mild form of pox conferred immunity against smallpox, a deadly disease with similar symptoms.

Hahnemann followed up his experiment by studying local records of accidental poisonings from commonly used medications. He found that when these substances were taken in overdose, they produced symptoms similar to those of the diseases for which they were given. For example, mercury was used to treat syphilis, but could cause syphilis-like ulcers in high doses. Hahnemann referred to his discovery as "the law of similars"--that substances that produced specific symptoms when given to healthy people in sufficient quantity could heal sick people of similar symptoms when given in highly diluted forms. He then began to analyze the remedies available in nature by what he called provings. Provings of homeopathic remedies are still compiled by dosing healthy adults with various substances and documenting the results, in terms of the dose needed to produce the symptoms and the length of the dose's effectiveness. The symptoms are then classified in three categories, depending on whether they are produced in all provers, in a majority of provers, or only in a small number. The findings are collected in large homeopathic reference works called materia medica or materials of medicine as well as in homeopathic repertories.

Purpose

The purpose of homeopathy is the restoration of the body to homeostasis, or healthy balance, which is considered its natural state. The symptoms of a disease are regarded as the body's own defensive attempt to correct its imbalance, rather than as enemies to be defeated. Because a homeopath regards symptoms as positive evidence of the body's inner intelligence, he or she will prescribe a remedy designed to stimulate this internal curative process rather than suppress the symptoms.

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