Medicine of the mind

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Complementary medicine: part 1 Placebo or real remedy? Phil Hammond investigates homeopathy and tells what happened when the fat, ginger doctor tried nux vomica

Should you get homeopathy on the NHS? The theories may be nonsense, but lots of patients love it. "It took my homeopath three months to find the right remedy," says one allergic woman, "but once he did, those itchy lumps vanished." Of course, itchy lumps have a tendency to come and go on their own so homeopaths may just be using the doctor's trick of taking credit for the body's amazing capacity to heal itself.

To prove to a scientist that homeopathy is more than a placebo, you'd need to collect lots of women with itchy lumps, jumble them up and divide them at random into two groups, half of whom get the remedy and half get chalk. Neither patients nor doctors are allowed to know which pill is which, lest their prejudices get in the way of the lumps.

Lots of trials have been done. Sometimes homeopathy seems to work better than chalk; sometimes it doesn't. But if you group all the trials together, it seems that its greatest effect is through the power of suggestion and belief over the human mind, rather than what's in the pill. If magic, empathy, time and faith make someone better, that's fine with me. It's not much help if your head's chopped off, but for stress and itchy lumps it might just work.

Some homeopaths argue that large trials aren't the way to test their methods, which are tailored to the individual. Each remedy is carefully matched not just to symptoms (particulars) but habits (generals) and personality traits (mentals).

A jolly, fat woman with itchy lumps would get a different remedy to a thin, neurotic one. Hence the scientific habit of treating all itchy-lumped people the same won't work for homeopathy. Practitioners believe in treating like with like. Your remedy is based on a substance that, if given in large amounts to healthy people of your ilk, produces your symptoms. Hence a homeopath once gave me nux vomica (strychnine) for stress, because lots of strychnine makes fat, ginger doctors irritable. So far so good. Except what I swallowed didn't contain a single molecule of strychnine. It had been diluted so many times that the final concentration was equivalent to one molecule in all the world's oceans, and I had a single drop on a sugar tablet.

The theory here is that successive diluting and shaking (succussion) somehow transmits memory of the strychnine to the water it's dissolved in and, more bizarrely, the more diluted the solution, the more powerful it becomes. It's like saying the weaker the beer, the more drunk you get.

Homeopaths believe particle physics will one day explain all this, but the thought that if I splash about in my bath water it'll remember I've been in it, leaves me cold.

Whatever gets you thru' the night, as John Lennon used to sing. I met a man who had been to the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and been given an infinitesimally dilute solution of Berlin Wall to unite his disparate symptoms. He felt better and I haven't laughed so hard in years. So homeopathy helped us bot*

This is the first of a six-part summer series

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