The Limitations and Risks of Homeopathic Medicine

Homeopathic medicines are indeed powerful tools but they are not effective in treating all diseased states. Some conditions do not respond to microdoses because they require surgical intervention, others require immediate and certain relief of symptoms, others are addressed by simple nutritional or lifestyle changes, still others are relieved only upon reduced exposure to certain environmental stresses—and then, there are those who don’t experience improvement from homeopathic medicine for unknown reasons.

At the turn of the century some of America’s leading surgeons were homeopathic physicians. Homeopaths are thus not against surgery since, they, like other medical professionals, recognize the special value of surgery in certain circumstances. Homeopathic medicines, however, can be of great value in reducing the need for surgery in certain circumstances, and at other times, the medicines can be invaluable in helping the person heal after the surgery is completed.

Homeopathic medicines may not also be appropriate for some symptoms which are life-threatening and call for immediate, sometimes heroic means of treatment. Certain cases of asthma where breathing is significantly impaired, meningitis which requires immediate antibiotic treatment to avoid possible brain damage or death, and various other conditions require conventional medical treatment to assure survival. This isn’t to say that homeopathic medicines are of no value in these conditions. In fact, homeopathic medicines may reduce the need for conventional medical treatment even in certain of these cases. Microdoses may effectively treat a serious attack of asthma, may cure the serious infection without the need for antibiotics, and may rapidly relieve various other life-threatening symptoms. However, since the homeopathic medicines require strict individualization to obtain the best results, one cannot always depend on them for rapid, effective relief of symptoms. There is general consensus amongst homeopaths that homeopathic medicines can still be used in emergencies either on the way to the doctor or hospital and/or in conjunction with the heroic conventional medical treatment.

Homeopathic medicines are also ineffective in treating some conditions which cry out for simple nutrition and lifestyle changes. A woman may be anemic from a lack of iron in her diet. Homeopathic medicines may be prescribed to deal with some of her symptoms and may even be used to help her assimilate iron from her food more efficiently, but until she gets iron, she may experience persistent symptoms.

Exposure to environmental toxins is becoming a major modern problem. Although homeopathic medicines may be effective in helping a person re-establish health after exposure to many toxins, real improvement in health isn’t likely if exposurecontinues. For instance, a woman with a skin rash went to a homeopathic physician. From her symptoms, the doctor prescribed Sulphur 30. The condition temporarily worsened in a classic response according to Hering’s Law, then got better, only to return within two weeks. The homeopath gave a stronger dose ofSulphur, and she once again experienced a similar pattern of exacerbation, relief, and return of her symptoms. Upon obtaining more detail about the woman’s job at a food processing plant, it was discovered that she worked at a dried fruit plant which sprays sulphur on the fruit as a preservative. She was experiencing a sulphur proving. Her skin finally improved after she changed jobs.

Probably the greatest frustration for a homeopath (and to the patient as well) are those people who, for some uncertain reason, are not responding effectively to homeopathic medicines. Homeopaths often initially assume that the cause of the lack of reaction is that they have not correctly analyzed the case and thus are not giving the correct medicine. Experienced homeopaths know that certain medicines sometimes are valuable when the indicated medicine does not cure. Since it is generally recommended to try these medicines one at a time and allow a month or more between medicines,* finding an effective remedy may take several months. When people with chronic indigestion, headaches, arthritis, or other persistent symptoms are not receiving adequate treatment with conventional drugs, delay isn’t a major problem, since they have already been waiting for curative care for years or even decades. But a patient in pain and discomfort might understandably seek an alternative to homeopathic care before a “similimum” (most similar medicine) can be found.

[*Different schools of thought in homeopathy recommend varying lengths of time between different medicines and doses. Some homeopaths prescribe daily doses of a medicine and may change the dose or the medicine at any time, while others prescribe a single dose or a couple of doses and then wait one or more months before changing the dose or the medicine. Generally, those homeopaths who give repeated doses of medicine in a week or a month prescribe low potency medicines, that is, the 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, or 18th potency.] When careful analysis of a patient’s health history, present lifestyle, and potential environmental exposures does not indicate any obvious reason for nonresponse to a microdose, homeopaths may either consult with another homeopath or refer the patient to some other type of health practitioner.

People often ask: Are there conditions which homeopathy treats most effectively, and which conditions does it not tend to have great success? These are difficult questions that can best be answered by the cliche that homeopathy does not treat diseases, only people.* Case histories in homeopathic books and journals describe successful treatment of just about every acute and chronic disease. Many homeopaths assume that there are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.

[*To those familiar with basic homeopathic principles, it is sometimes confusing to go to a health food store or pharmacy and see homeopathic medicines sold for specific conditions. Most homeopathic manufacturers make mixtures of homeopathic medicines, called “combination remedies” or “complexes,” where generally 3-8 substances which are commonly given for a certain type of condition are placed together in a single medicine. It is assumed that this new combination of medicines will be helpful to a broad number of patients suffering from a specific complaint. Although many consumers find these medicines to be helpful, there is general consensus in the homeopathic community that the individually chosen medicine works more often and more effectively.]

These parameters are quite simplistic since a large number of chronic diseases become incurable once they have progressed to a certain stage. Homeopathic medicines may then alleviate pain and discomfort and may slow down the pathological process, but it is questionable if cure is possible under any kind of treatment.

As for the dangers of the homeopathic medicines, it is widely recognized that their greatest danger may be only their delaying the use of other potentially effective medical treatments. Since most homeopaths are medical doctors or some other licensed medical professional, they generally know when conventional medical care is required or when referral to a specialist is indicated.

Another potential danger of homeopathic medicines arises if a person continues to take a medicine when it is not indicated. A small percentage of such people may experience a “proving”—the symptoms produced in overdose of the subsubstance. These symptoms may occur, as previously described, even with high potencies. Homeopaths do not consider the symptoms of a proving to be a major danger since they usually end shortly after the person stops taking the medicine. Some homeopaths stop a proving by prescribing the same medicine in a higher (more dilute) potency, and some homeopaths give a medicine which is known to antidote the symptoms of the medicine being proven. Because a proving is possible when a person isn’t taking the correct medicine, it is recommended not to take a medicine longer than one week unless under professional homeopathic care.

The first time an American medical journal ever published a case suggesting that there is danger in taking homeopathic medicines was in a recent letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. (1) In the case reported, a patient took eight doses in two hours as recommended by a chiropractor and shortly thereafter experienced severe epigastric pain which was later diagnosed as pancreatitis (a potentially dangerous disease). It should be noted however the remedy prescribed by the chiropractor was a “combination medicine” (with 19 different ingredients) and that it was prescribed for the treatment of cancer. Although the patient’s health history was not described in the letter, one might assume that he wasn’t healthy prior to treatment, and one should not necessarily assume that the medicine caused this condition.

There is general consensus that homeopathic medicines are safe, though like carrot juice, vitamins, and many “natural” substances, can be misused. Homeopathy is promoted by the National Center of Homeopathy as “The Safer Medicine.” There is little disagreement on this fact.

1. H.D. Kerr and G.W. Yarborough, “Pancreatitis Following Ingestion of a Homeopathic Preparation,” New England Journal of Medicine, 314, 25, June 19, 1986.

Copyright 1991 by Dana Ullman, M.P.H. used by permission of the author from
the book Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century published
by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

For further information about homeopathic medicine, contact:

Homeopathic Educational

2124B Kittredge St.

Berkeley, CA. 94704


(510)649-1955 (fax)


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Dana Ullman MPH Written by Dana Ullman MPH

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