By Dana Ullman MPH, CCH
"I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis, and I don't deserve that either."
Sir William Osler, known as the "Father of Modern Medicine," once said, "When an arthritis patient walks in the front door, I feel like leaving by the back door." There is one simple reason that Dr. Osler and many other conventional physicians since him have difficulty facing arthritic patients: there is little that conventional medicine offers them. The lucky ones get temporary relief along with drug side effects; the unlucky ones only get the side effects.
Homeopathic medicine is natural pharmaceutical system that uses extremely small doses of substances from the plant, mineral, or animal kingdom to augment a person's own immune and defense system. Based on the "principle of similars," homeopathy uses substances which would actually cause, if given in large dose to experimental subjects, the similar symptoms that a sick person experiences.
Because symptoms of illness are efforts of the person's immune and defense system to fight infection, deal with stress, or try to heal itself, an individually chosen homeopathic medicine is chosen for its unique ability to mimic the very symptoms that the sick person is experiencing. The homeopathic remedy thus aids the body's own defenses, as compared to conventional drugs which typically treat and often suppress symptoms. A homeopathic medicine is not chosen simply based on the disease a person has but on the individualized symptoms each person has.
These natural medicines are known to stimulate a person's own healing abilities. A recent review research on homeopathy was published in the British Medical Journal (February 9, 1991, pp. 316-323) and indicated that 81 of 107 controlled studies showed that homeopathic medicines were effective in treating a variety of common ailments. Not all of these studies were adequately controlled, and yet, a still significant number of the high quality studies, 15 of 21, showed that the homeopathic medicines were effective
Homeopathic Medicine and Arthritis
Arthritis is one area in which there are several studies which have shown that homeopathic medicines are efficacious. Because homeopathic medicines need to be individually prescribed to the unique pattern of symptoms that sick people experience, controlled studies must be sensitive to this therapeutic requirement in order to adequately and accurate test this medical system.
One study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (1980, 9, pp. 453-459) showed that 82% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced some degree of relief after being prescribed an individually chosen homeopathic medicine. Only 21% of patients given a placebo received a similar degree of relief.
This study used two homeopathic physicians, both of whom interviewed patients (46 in total) and prescribed individualized medicines for each. These prescriptions were given to a pharmacist who then blindly gave half their homeopathic medicine and gave the other half a placebo.
The British Medical Journal (1989, 299, pp. 365-6) published a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study on the treatment of fibromyalgia. Although cross-over studies are normally difficult when using homeopathic medicines due to the need for strict individualization of remedies, this unique study included a pre-qualification interview which allowed into the trial only those patients with fibromyalgia that fit the need for a specific remedy, Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy).
The researchers admitted 42% of those they interviewed with fibromyalgia into the study. Then, half of the subject began taking Rhus toxicodendron 6c, while the other half took a placebo. Halfway through the trial the treatment was switched: the group who were unknowingly taking the placebo began taking the active treatment, and the group who were unknowingly taking the active treatment began taking the placebo.
The study showed that patients did better in all variables being tested (the number of tender spots, 10 cm visual analogue scales of pain and sleep, and overall assessment) when they took the active treatment rather than placebo. The number of tender spots was reduced by about a quarter (p<0.005). The number of patients with improved pain or sleep were 53 while taking active treatment and only 27 while taking placebo (p<0.0052).
Not all studies have shown the efficacy of homeopathic medicines in the treatment of arthritis conditions, though the following study had a major flaw in it which seriously threw into doubt its value. This study, published in The Lancet (January 15, 1983, pp. 97-98), was a controlled trial on the homeopathic treatment of osteoarthritis. The researchers compared the use of a single homeopathic medicine (Rhus toxicodendron) with fenoprofen (a standard anti-inflammatory analgesic) and a placebo.
In order for patients to be admitted to the study, they had to be diagnosed with osteoarthritis, and they had to have two key symptoms of Rhus toxicodendron (pain in the affected joints which was made worse by immobility and exacerbated on movement or by initial weight bearing and pain in the affected joints had to be aggravated by cold and damp and ameliorated by warmth).
Although these inclusionary features were important, they were inadequate. There are numerous other symptoms which suggest the appropriate prescription of Rhus toxicodendron. A perhaps even more significant problem in the study design is the fact that Rhus toxicodendron is often prescribed to patients with rheumatoid arthritis who have its unique symptoms, but it is rarely prescribed for patients with osteoarthritis.
The study predictably showed that the homeopathic medicine acted no better than the placebo, though numerous letters to the editor followed its publication (February 26, 1983).
Self-Treatment vs. Professional Care
Self-treatment of arthritis with homeopathic medicine is possible, including the use of homeopathic formula products for arthritis, though such care is generally only effective for treating acute exacerbations of the ailment, not the underlying disease. Although most arthritis sufferers would certainly welcome temporary relief, professional homeopathic care of people with arthritis offers the potential of deeper, more longlasting relief, possibly even a cure. Such treatment is provided through highly individualized constitutional treatment, usually a single remedy, though usually with a series of single remedies over time.
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