The word homeopathy is derived from the Greek words for like (homoios) and suffering (pathos). With the law of similars, Hahnemann theorized that if a large amount of a substance causes certain symptoms in a healthy person, smaller amounts of the same substance can treat those symptoms in someone who is ill. The basis of his theory took shape after a strong dose of the malaria treatment quinine caused his healthy body to develop symptoms similar to ones caused by the disease. He continued to test his theory on himself as well as family and friends with different herbs, minerals and other substances. He called these experiments "provings."
But, as might be expected, the intensity of the symptoms caused by the original proving was harrowing. So Hahnemann began decreasing the doses to see how little of a substance could still produce signs of healing.
With the minimum dose, or law of infinitesimals, Hahnemann believed that a substance's strength and effectiveness increased the more it was diluted. Minuscule doses were prepared by repeatedly diluting the active ingredient by factors of 10. A "6X" preparation (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) is a 1-to-10 dilution repeated six times, leaving the active ingredient as one part per million. Essential to the process of increasing potency while decreasing the actual amount of the active ingredient is vigorous shaking after each dilution.
Some homeopathic remedies are so dilute, no molecules of the healing substance remain. Even with sophisticated technology now available, analytical chemists may find it difficult or impossible to identify any active ingredient. But the homeopathic belief is that the substance has left its imprint or a spirit-like essence that stimulates the body to heal itself.
Critics of homeopathy point out that no way such a dilute medicine could work. People are feeling better because of the placebo effect. Critics also say the research in homeopathy is very unimpressive. Proponents of homeopathy point out to numerous trials that have been successful.
Recent homeopathic trials include a trial done by A Swiss-UK review of 110 trials found no convincing evidence the treatment worked any better than a placebo.
However, there seems to be many problems with this type of trial.
The University of Limberg investigators, who are all epidemiologists, conducted an exhaustive search of the published medical literature to find evidence of homeopathy's efficacy regardless of implausibility. They found an astonishing 107 controlled studies. Many of them compared a homeopathic remedy with a placebo. While some studies were well designed, the investigators found that the methods used in the majority left much to be desired. But their findings were favorable enough toward homeopathy to suggest further evaluation: "Of the better studies, 15 trials showed positive results whereas in seven trials no positive effect could be detected (in one trial only homeopathic treatments were compared with each other)."
They used strict criteria for the selection of the best trials. Highest marks went to the studies with these characteristics: a large number of participants, double blinding (neither physicians nor participants know who is receiving the homeopathic remedy), a placebo that was described as indistinguished from the homeopathic remedy, and random assignment of participants to a treatment group.
All in all, the University of Limberg investigators found that number of published studies to be impressive. "The amount of positive evidence even among the best studies came as a surprise to us." But they acknowledged that many questions remain. Chief among them is a plausible explanation for how homeopathic remedies work.
The article that quoted the homeopathic studies is a 1991 article. All homeopathic trials examined were before 1991. In part 2 of Homepathy: Proven Medicine or A Placebo we will look at more recent trials and guage those results.