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Homoeopathic medicines – the placebo effect

Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that involves taking highly diluted substances. These include plants such as belladonna, arnica, and chamomile; minerals such as mercury and sulphur; animal products such as sepia (squid ink) and lachesis (snake venom); and biochemical substances.

The placebo in a homoeopathic drug proving trial consists of optically identical placebo globules. The subjects document their symptoms in a diary.

What is the placebo effect?

The placebo effect is a fascinating connection between mind and body. The idea is that if you believe in a treatment, your body will produce chemistry that mimics the effects of real medication. In fact, placebos have been shown to cause real effects in the brain, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased reaction times, or release of the body’s natural pain relievers (endorphins).

Clinical trials that use placebos can help scientists determine whether or not a treatment is effective. However, there are many conditions present in a research setting that don’t exist in clinical settings that can limit or prevent the placebo effect from occurring.

For example, participants in a research study may be given considerable attention and motivation by the researchers, which can increase the placebo effect. In addition, some placebos are designed to have a negative effect on the patient, known as the nocebo effect, and this can counteract the positive effects of the placebo effect.

How does the placebo effect work?

Homeopathy is based on the belief that a substance (such as a plant, animal or chemical) that causes symptoms in a healthy person can treat those same symptoms in an unwell person. The process of making a homeopathic medicine involves repeatedly diluting the original substance, often to the point that no trace of the original substance remains.

Many homeopathic medicines are available over the counter. However, these products may contain ingredients that could interact with certain medications, including FDA-approved flu treatments like Xofluza and Tamiflu.

There is a concern that placebo responses can be misleading. If patients believe they are receiving homeopathic treatment, they may stop other forms of health care, such as conventional medications or surgery, which can cause unpleasant side effects. This can lead to an improvement in the patient’s condition, which may be attributed to homeopathy, when it is actually due to cessation of the other treatment. This is referred to as the placebo effect in reverse.

What is the placebo effect in homeopathy?

Homeopathy is based on the idea that a "like cures a like" -- that is, if a substance causes a certain symptom in a healthy person, giving that same symptom can help the body fight off the disease. In the case of homeopathic medicines, very small amounts of any active medicine are used. The original medicinal substance is diluted and shaken so many times that only very tiny chemical molecules remain; this process is called potentisation.

Some practitioners try to find the single homeopathic medicine that best matches a patient's general "constitution" -- a complex picture incorporating current illness, medical history and personality traits. Other practitioners prescribe combination remedies. Both approaches may work. The only way to know is to conduct clinical trials comparing non-individualised homeopathy against placebo, using a suitable control group. Such trials should also be designed to identify any specific effects of homeopathic treatments. Until then, consumers should take care when buying homeopathic products and be sure that their doctor is aware of any alternative treatment they are considering.

What is the placebo effect in clinical trials?

When you think about it, placebos are really a form of mental healing. When you believe a fake treatment works, your body will stimulate healing.

Homeopathy (also spelled homoeopathy) is an alternative medicine that believes tiny doses of a natural substance -- such as a plant, animal or chemical -- can cure illness. Its founder, Samuel Hahnemann, believed in a principle called "like cures like." That means a substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person can treat an illness with the same symptoms it produces in a healthy person.

In clinical trials, researchers give one group of participants a placebo while another group gets a real medicine. The goal is to see if the placebo effect improves the results of the study. The placebo may cause side effects in some people. This is called the nocebo effect. This is because the placebo may make you expect to get sick from the actual treatment. However, a 2015 comprehensive review of studies found no evidence that homeopathic medicines are effective.

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