Treating RA with Complementary Medicine: Homeotherapy

Patient Expert

Homeotherapy is defined as the treatment of disease using homeopathic principles. These principles were developed by Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician, in the late 1700s. Hahnemann was concerned about bloodletting, leeching, purging, and other medical procedures of his day that did far more harm than good. Thinking that these treatments were intended to "balance the body's 'humors' by opposite effects," he developed his "law of similars" based on the theory that symptoms of disease can be cured by extremely small amounts of substances that produce similar symptoms in healthy people when administered in large amounts. The word "homeopathy" is derived from the Greek words homoios (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease).

At one time there were many homeopathic schools around the world, but as medical science advanced, hometherapy declined in popularity and the last pure homeopathic school in the U.S. closed in the 1920's. The theory of homeopathy is inconsistent with known laws of chemistry and physics, because it asserts that extreme dilution makes drugs more powerful by enhancing their "spirit-like medicinal powers." No one can pinpoint why it works, when it does, especially because the doses are sometimes so diluted that barely one molecule of the theraputic substance remains in the mixture. Recent placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown both negative and positive results, but most of those trials had methodological problems. Better-quality trials have been more likely to give negative results. For example, a 2005 Lancet study showed that a meta-analysis of 110 placebo-controlled homoeopathy trials and 110 matched conventional-medicine trials based upon the Swiss government's Program for Evaluating Complementary Medicine, or PEK. The outcome of this meta-analysis suggested that the clinical effects of homeopathy are likely to be placebo effects. Also, a 1991 study published by the British Society for rheumatology found "no evidence that active homeopathy improves the symptoms of RA, over 3 months, in patients attending a routine clinic who are stabilized on NSAIDs or DMARDs".

Homeotherapy has surged again in popularity in large part because of the expense of prescription drugs and public uncertainty over the long-term safety and effectiveness of them. It is particularly popular in Europe, Canada and India, though less so in the U.S. It's used worldwide not only by homeopaths, but by some medical doctors as well as naturopaths, chiropractors, herbalists, midwives and sometimes even veterinarians.

Cases have been reported of life-threatening complications resulting from attempts to treat serious conditions solely with homeopathic remedies. Today, about 3,000 remedies are used in homeopathy; about 300 are based on comprehensive Materia Medica (an alphabetical index of drugs) information, about 1500 on relatively piecemeal knowledge and the rest are used experimentally in difficult cases based on the law of similars, either without knowledge of their homeopathic properties or through speculative knowledge independent of the law of similars.

Homeopathy is an individualized therapy in which a practitioner takes a detailed history of the patient's health, lifestyle, preferences and symptoms and categorizes his or her "constitutional type." This information is matched by the himeopath into a data bank of remedies. Some common remedies for arthritis pain are Rhus toxicodendron (from poison ivy) Bryonia (wild hops), Apis (from bee venom) and Ledum (from marsh tea).

In so-called "classical homeopathy," the practitioner seeks a single remedy that is considered to be the perfect fit for an individual and his or her situation, and then prescribes one remedy at a time. If that remedy doesn't work on all the symptoms, the practitioner may substitute - or add - another remedy. However, many of today's homeopaths use combination remedies of two or more ingredients at a time. Many more people self-treat, especially for minor ailments such as a cold or muscle pain. There are many books on homeopathy that match symptoms to remedies, and remedies are usually labeled with their therapeutic uses. These substances are available over the counter in health food stores, pharmacies and grocery stores. The FDA approves homeopathic remedies as over-the-counter drugs, unlike herbs and dietary supplements, which have not received FDA approval.

For more information, see the National Center for Homeopathy. (703/548-7790 or For a medical or osteopathic doctor who's also a homeopath, contact the American Institute of Homeopathy (703/246-9501 or online at