When my daughter, Whitney, suffered a nasty sprain during a soccer game, we rushed her to the doctor. Although a quick exam and X-rays showed nothing broken, the doctor could offer only a pair of crutches and the assurance that, over the next few weeks, her ankle would heal on its own. Fortunately, a neighbor recommended Arnica montana, a homeopathic remedy known for its ability to tackle tough sports injuries. Within days, Whitney's pain, swelling, and bruising had virtually vanished.

Although homeopathy—a holistic medicine that uses natural, nontoxic remedies to stimulate the body's inherent healing capacity—is nearly 200 years old, remedies like arnica have only recently become popular. And despite its growing use, homeopathy is still one of the least-understood forms of medicine. If you're among those baffled by homeopathy, the following answers to commonly asked questions will help you get a handle on this method of healing that takes its cues from the body.

Q: Where did homeopathy come from?

A: Modern homeopathy was fathered by Samuel Hahnemann, an 18th-century German physician. Intrigued by another doctor's successful treatment of malaria with quinine, Hahnemann found that quinine itself produced the signs of malaria. After further research, he theorized that dilutions of natural substances causing symptoms of illness in a healthy person could cure those same symptoms in a sick person.

Today, conventional medicine dominates the health care system, but homeopathy recently has risen in popularity. According to one report, the number of Americans using homeopathy skyrocketed 500 percent between 1996 and 2003 (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2003, vol. 138, no. 5). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates homeopathic remedies under provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Q: How does homeopathy work?

A: Homeopathy is based on the law of similars. In other words, substances that can cause symptoms in a healthy person cure the same or similar symptoms in an ill person. It works like this: Large doses of a particular remedy would cause a healthy person to experience unwelcome symptoms. But a miniscule dose—such as those found in homeopathic remedies—can actually help the body overcome illness by stimulating the body's own healing response (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2003, vol. 138, no. 5).

Often referred to as "like cures like," homeopathic remedies take their cues from symptoms. "Homeopathy regards symptoms as the body's healthy attempt to restore itself to balance," says New York City-based certified homeopath Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH. "A homeopath will choose a remedy that supports the symptoms rather than opposing or suppressing them as in conventional medicine." Also unlike most doctors, a homeopath will interview a patient for an hour or more to uncover the root cause of the symptoms before prescribing a remedy. "Because a symptom may manifest itself in the body, mind, emotion, spirit, or soul, homeopathy is effective even in the absence of a conventional diagnosis," says Sue Volpi Gelber, CCH, a registered and certified homeopath based in Davis, California.

Q: Are homeopathic remedies herbs?

A: Homeopathic medicines are often derived from herbs, but the plant material gets altered during potenization, a process by which a substance—either herbal, mineral, or animal—gets consecutively diluted and vigorously shaken to bring out the medicinal properties. The more a substance goes through this process, the longer and more deeply the resulting medicine acts—in other words, the more effective it is—and the fewer doses you'll need to successfully treat an ailment.

Q: What do the numbers and letters that follow the homeopathic name of the remedy mean?

A: These indicate the remedy's dilution level, which is achieved through potenization. For example, when a substance has been diluted 1:10 three times, the remedy bears the label "3x" (x is the Roman numeral for 10). When it has been diluted 1:100 three times, the medicine is called "3c" (c being the Roman numeral for 100).

Q: What kinds of conditions can homeopathy treat?

A: Homeopathic medicine can help treat many acute and chronic health problems, including allergies, arthritis, colds and flu, headaches and backaches, PMS, depression, and many other physical and emotional ailments. For example, after a construction accident in Israel that injured 15 people, homeopaths from the Center of Integrated Complementary Medicine worked side by side with emergency doctors, augmenting conventional treatment with homeopathic remedies to decrease pain and anxiety. Most of the patients reported less pain, 58 percent felt that their condition had improved, and 89 percent had reduced anxiety after the homeopathic treatments (Homeopathy, 2003, vol. 92, no. 1).

Homeopathy can also tackle more serious maladies, such as fibromyalgia, neuropathy, ulcers, and peritonitis (an inflamed abdominal lining), and even help treat AIDS (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2003, vol. 9, no. 1).

Recent evidence also shows that homeopathy aids conventional cancer treatment by mitigating pain and fatigue (Palliative Medicine, 2002, vol. 16, no. 3). Studies show, too, that homeopathy can help treat some types of heart disease, such as cardiac insufficiency (European Journal of Heart Failure, 2003, vol. 5, no. 3) and heart disease (Terapevticheski¿ Arkhiv, 2001, vol. 73, no. 10). Because these are serious medical conditions, consult with a professional homeopath or naturopath before taking remedies.

Q: Are there any harmful side effects?

American Institute of Homeopathy
888.445.9988; www.homeopathyusa.org

Council for Homeopathic Certification
866.242.3399; www.homeopathicdirectory.com

North American Society of Homeopaths
206.720.7000; www.homeopathy.org

A: Homeopathic remedies are highly diluted, so they contain only miniscule amounts of the original substances from which they are made. As a result, they don't have the toxic side effects common to many conventional medicines. And unlike herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies generally do not interact negatively with other drugs you may be taking.

Also, homeopathic remedies are unlikely to cause allergic reactions, according to Tim Fior, MD, DHt, a medical doctor and homeopath in Lombard, Illinois. However, sometimes you may experience a mild worsening of your symptoms. This initial aggravation usually is a good sign and indicates that your body is responding to the remedy.

Q: Is homeopathy safe for children?

A: Yes, says Fior. In fact, homeopathy is effective for everyday childhood ailments, such as colic and teething. It's also extremely safe. Because these remedies work on a physical, mental, and emotional level, they may even help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In one recent double-blind study of 83 children diagnosed with ADHD, Swiss researchers found that those taking the homeopathic remedy verum had significantly fewer behavioral problems than the children taking a placebo (European Journal of Pediatrics, 2005, vol. 164, no. 12).

Q: How do I take homeopathic medicines?

A: Homeopathic remedies come in a wide variety of forms, including pellets, tablets, liquid, ointments, and suppositories. Pellets, taken sublingually, are the most popular form. Because the pills are fragile and easily contaminated, avoid handling them. Instead, tap the tablets or pellets into the bottle cap and carefully place them under your tongue. The capillaries under the tongue promote faster absorption into the bloodstream.

Q: Can I treat myself?

A: If you suffer from a common ailment, such as a cold, cough, or minor injury, you can treat yourself, says Fior. But keep in mind that homeopathic remedies aren't a "one size fits all" treatment. "In a way, each illness is as unique as a fingerprint," says Gelber. For more serious conditions or when in doubt about specific treatments or doses, consult an experienced homeopath or qualified health care professional.

Kim Erickson is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living and coauthor of Green Living: The E Magazine Handbook for Living Lightly on the Earth (Plume, 2005).