A form of alternative medicine that involves administering very small amounts of a substance that in normal doses would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated. Homeopathy originated in Germany in the late 18th century and is based on the theory that “like cures like” (thus the name “homeopathy,” which translates literally as “similar suffering”). A person undergoing homeopathic treatment is given very small amounts of a substance called a “remedy” that is heavily diluted. The idea is that the remedy will stimulate the body’s own natural defenses to fight off the illness.

To date, most well designed clinical trials of homeopathy have failed to show that it works. Critics of homeopathy also point out that many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that they don’t contain a single molecule of the original substance. Because these “remedies” are present in such small amounts, any risks from the homeopathic medicines appear to be small. However, there can be a real risk if homeopathy is substituted for standard medical care, especially if a serious medical condition is involved.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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