The name homeopathy, coined by its originator, Samuel Hahnemann, is derived from the Greek words for ‘similar suffering’ referring to the ‘like cures like’ principle of healing. The principle of treating “like with like” has an honorable tradition dating back to Hippocrates (460-377BC). However, Hahnemann was born in Germany two hundred and fifty years ago.
Hahnemann was a medical doctor and, shocked with the harsh medical practices of the day (which included blood-letting, purging and the use of poisons such as arsenic), he looked for a way to reduce the damaging side-effects associated with medical treatment.
He began experimenting on himself and a group of healthy volunteers, giving smaller and smaller medicinal doses, and found that as well as reducing toxicity, the medicines actually appeared to be more effective, the lower the dose. He also observed that symptoms caused by toxic ‘medicines’ such as mercury, were similar to those of the diseases they were being used to treat e.g. syphilis, which led to the principle he described as ‘like cures like’.
Like with like
Homeopathy is based on the principle that you can treat ‘like with like’, that is, a substance which causes symptoms when taken in large doses, can be used in small amounts to treat similar symptoms. For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness and agitation, so according to this principle, when made into a homeopathic medicine, coffee could be used to treat people with these symptoms, or onion could be used to treat people with hayfever symptoms such as burning, watery eyes. This concept is sometimes used in conventional medicine. For example, the stimulant Ritalin is used to treat patients with ADHD, or small doses of allergens such as pollen are sometimes used to de-sensitise allergic patients.
Homeopathic medicines, or remedies, are prepared by specialist pharmacies using a careful process of dilution and succussion (a specific form of vigorous shaking). As yet, science has not been able to explain the mechanism of action of ultra high dilutions in the body, but laboratory experiments have demonstrated that homeopathically prepared substances can cause biological effects and are distinct from ‘pure water’, as some sceptics have suggested.
Hahnemann went on to document his work, and his texts formed the foundations of homeopathic medicine as it is practised today. A BBC Radio 4 documentary aired in December 2010 described Hahnemann as a medical pioneer who worked tirelessly to improve medical practice, insisting that homeopathic remedies were tested before use.