I routinely use an arnica gel for minor muscular strains. In fact, it’s one of my “go to” treatments.
In 2010, however, I found myself swallowing Boiron Arnica Montana 30C pellets, an oral version that was the only option at the closest GNC. I started at five pellets, SIX times a day–TWICE the recommended dose. Risk of overdose? Not likely.
“30C,” which I looked up that evening, tells you all you need to know.
This consumable version of arnica, unlike the creams I’d used in the past, was a homeopathic remedy. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, pioneered the field of homeopathy in 1796, if the term “pioneer” can be applied to alternative “medicine” founded on concepts like mass dilution and beatings with horse-hair implements. From the Wikipedia entry for “homeopathic dilutions,” last I looked:
Homeopaths use a process called “dynamisation” or “potentisation” whereby a substance is diluted with alcohol or distilled water and then vigorously shaken by ten hard strikes against an elastic body in a process called “succussion”… Hahnemann believed that the process of succussion activated the vital energy of the diluted substance.
Back to 30C. 30C indicates a 10-60 (10^(-60), or 10 to the negative 60th) dilution, the dilution most recommended by Hahnemann.
30C would require giving 2 billion doses per second to 6 billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any one person. Put another way, if I diluted one-third of a drop of liquid into all the water on earth, it would produce a remedy with a concentration of about 13C, more than twice the “strength” of our 30C arnica.
Most homeopathic remedies in liquid are indistinguishable from water and don’t contain a single molecule of active medicine. In systematic review after systematic review, these dilutive homeopathic remedies display no ability to heal beyond placebo.
I found this particularly bothersome. Bothersome because I appeared to heal faster using oral 30C arnica.
There are a few potential explanations…
OPTION #1 — HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES WORK AS ADVERTISED
The water actually retains some “essential property” of the original substance because of the beatings and shakings. I give this a probability of somewhere between zero and epsilon (where epsilon is almost zero). It violates the most basic laws of science and makes my head hurt.
NOTE: Some people use the term “homeopathic” interchangeably with “organic” or “herbal”; I am not addressing this misnomer nor the associated compounds. Some herbal, non-prescription medications have tremendous effects. I’m speaking only to the original use of the word “homeopathic” as related to dilutive treatments.
OPTION #2 — THE PLACEBO EFFECT
I didn’t realize it was a homeopathic remedy until after four or five doses, and I had been told it could reduce pain by up to 50% in 24 hours. Placebo is strong stuff. People can become intoxicated from alcohol placebos, and “placebo” knee surgeries for osteoarthritis, where incisions are made but nothing is repaired, can produce results that rival the real deal. This explanation gets my vote. Now, if I could just forget what I read on the label, I could repeat it next time.
OPTION #3 — REGRESSION TOWARD THE MEAN
Imagine you catch a cold or get the flu. It’s going to get worse and worse, then better and better until you are back to normal. The severity of symptoms, as is true with many injuries, will probably look something like a bell curve.
The bottom flat line, representing normalcy, is the mean. When are you most likely to try the quackiest shit you can get your hands on? That miracle duck extract Aunt Susie swears by? The crystals your roommate uses to open his heart chakra? Naturally, when your symptoms are the worst and nothing seems to help. This is the very top of the bell curve, at the peak of the roller coaster before you head back down. Naturally heading back down is regression toward the mean.
If you are a fallible human, as we all are, you might misattribute getting better to the duck extract, but it was just coincidental timing.
The body had healed itself, as could be predicted from the bell curve–like timeline of symptoms. Mistaking correlation for causation is very common, even among smart people.
In the world of “big data,” this mistake will become even more common, particularly if researchers seek to “let the data speak for themselves” rather than test hypotheses.
Spurious connections galore–that’s what the data will say, among other things. Caveat emptor.
OPTION #4 — SOME UNEXPLAINED MECHANISM
‘Tis possible that there is some as-yet-unexplained mechanism through which homeopathy works. Some mechanism that science will eventually explain. Stranger things have happened.
And while we don’t need to know how something works if we observe it to work (which clinical trials have not, in this case)…
Until something even remotely plausible comes along, I’ll do my best to scratch my psora (an itch “miasm” that Hahnemann felt caused epilepsy, cancer, and deafness) with at least one molecule of active substance.
This is something that has bothered me for years, but I’m very open to being proven wrong.
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