Homeopathy's Placebo Effect

Health : Placebos / pills over a hand with a caduceus and heart rhythmn
AP / CBS
The widely touted benefits of homeopathic drugs are merely placebo effects, a new study suggests.

Clinical trials almost always show that patients given inactive sugar pills — placebos — do better than untreated patients. It's called the placebo effect.

Clinical trials of homeopathic remedies sometimes show that these treatments work better than placebos. But a new analysis — comparing published studies of homeopathic drugs to matched, randomly selected studies of medical drugs — suggests that these apparent homeopathic drug effects are merely placebo effects.

Matthias Egger, MD, director of the department of social and preventive medicine (ISPM) at the University of Berne, Switzerland, led the study. He notes that small studies of both homeopathic and medical drugs are prey to biases favoring positive results. Such studies, he says, show relatively large positive effects for both homeopathic and conventional medicines.

But larger, more careful studies have fewer biases, Egger says. And these studies tell a different story.

"The effect of homeopathy disappears if you look only at large, good trials; whereas the conventional medicines' effect is still there," Egger tells WebMD. "This means there is no difference between placebo and homeopathic remedies."

Egger and colleagues report their findings in the Aug. 27 issue of The Lancet.

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is based on what its practitioners call the law of similars. The idea is that if a person has a symptom — such as a fever — it is the body's way of trying to kill off a germ. So a person would be given a medicine to help this symptom along: in this case, something that causes fever.

However, homeopathic medicines use only a very, very tiny amount of any medicine. An active ingredient is diluted, shaken, and diluted again. This is done so many times that few if any molecules of the original agent remain in the medicine. The idea is that the essence of the active ingredient is imparted to the medicine.

Homeopathic Doctors Cry Foul

Clinical trials may be biased, but not more than the Egger study, says homeopathic doctor Joyce Frye, DO, MBA, president of the American Institute of Homeopathy and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

"It is a flawed study. It starts out with a bias that the authors clearly state — an assumption that the beneficial effects seen in clinical trials of homeopathy are probably from biases," Frye tells WebMD. "They base their conclusion on the restriction of their analysis to only a few trials — eight trials of homeopathy with six trials of conventional medicine. Those numbers are too small for scientific comparison."