Symptoms tell us the Remedy
Let’s now skip over Hahnemann’s next provocative statement of medical generality to answer the question left open by the last post. Hahnemann says we shouldn’t theorize as to the complex internal mechanisms of the body or use our incomplete biochemical knowledge to treat people.
So, where should we go to understand someone’s illness? If not to lab tests, where? Where is that information we need to make a prescription?
The unprejudiced observer realizes the futility of metaphysical speculations that cannot be verified by experiment, and no matter how clever he is, he sees in any given case of disease only the disturbances of body and soul which are perceptible to the senses.Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, Organon of Medicine, 6th ed.; Kunzli et al., translators. United States (1982)
In other words, the homeopath uses the symptoms given by the sick person. And by “symptoms,” we mean in homeopathy every observable change from the person’s previous state of health. So we consider both the objective signs of illness and the subjective impressions given us by the ill person: “The totality of these perceptible signs represents the entire extent of the sickness; together they constitute its true and only conceivable form.” [Aphorism 6, con’t.]
Hahnemann elaborates on this for a couple of paragraphs: It is possible to understand an exciting or maintaining cause of disease that needs to be removed, like a toxic exposure or a tight bandage, or a physical (surgical) repair that is needed. Beyond these external causes, though, the way to understand an illness is simply to view the symptoms.
To understand the holistic approach to treatment, what is crucial to know is that Hahnemann is speaking about ALL of the patient’s symptoms, what he calls the Totality of Symptoms. This includes physical signs, sensations, general symptoms, intellectual symptoms, emotional symptoms, even what we might call existential symptoms.
Let’s consider, for example, someone who has a 103.5-degree fever with the flu. She’s got a dry cough, her head hurts, she’s utterly exhausted, her body hurts everywhere. You would think she’d lie still from all that pain and weakness, but she’s semi-delirious and wants to shift about the bed. Her breath and perspiration smell horribly. She’s very thirsty, but she won’t swallow a bite of food. She doesn’t like to talk and prefers not to be disturbed. If you press her, however, she says her throat closes when she tries to eat. She feels like her fever is in her lower back. All the heat and the pain come from there. The worst thing is the bed, which feels really hard and makes her hurt more. At her most delirious moments, she thinks the parts of her body are scattered about the bed and she’s trying to put them all together again.
Coming from a standard perspective, the important information in that paragraph is (1) high fever, (2) dry cough, (3) body aches, (4) headache, (5) lack of appetite and (6) foul odor. These probably mean she has the flu, needs a fever reducer, could use intravenous nourishment and should be watched for sepsis.
From a homeopathic perspective, every piece of information in that paragraph is useful, most especially the subjective impressions. The fever, cough, aches, headache, anorexia and bad odor are important in understanding that this is a flu we’re dealing with and what the dangers of such a flu might be. But these vague symptoms could be treated with a dozen different remedies, any one of which might help a little bit. However, when her bed feels too hard and she thinks her body is scattered about, when the pain and heat seem to come from her lower back, there is only remedy: Baptisia tinctoria (yellow false indigo).
So what’s the difference between giving homeopathic Baptisia tinctoria and giving a fever-reducing drug? Well, the fever reducer will probably make her feel a little better. Lowering the body temperature is good if her original fever was dangerously high. The pain lessens a bit, but her energy is not likely to improve much because the drug is fighting her body’s natural response. As soon as the drug wears off, the fever comes back. If she has a strong physical constitution, the fever may rebound strongly. After all, her body is trying to burn out a virus that’s making it sick. This chemical dance will go on for a long time, possibly days, because the fever reducer prevents her body doing the work it needs to do. This approach lets the virus do its thing while she waits out the result. Full recovery may take a week or two.
On the other hand, if you gave a dose of homeopathic Baptisia, you’d be helping her body to recognize what was wrong with it. Amidst the delirium, a little light bulb goes on. If the fever is too high, her body would bring it down to a safer level. If not high enough, it would spike the fever for more virus-burning effect. Meantime, because her body now knows what it’s about, she feels better. She has more energy, can swallow a little food and sleep soundly. The pain fades to a manageable level. And she’s not panicked about her body being in a dozen pieces.
Is one dose going to make the flu go away? Not likely. But when the dose wears off, the fever doesn’t rebound. She feels a little backsliding, the remedy is repeated, and she continues to recover on all levels. She’ll probably need a few doses over two to three days for full recovery.
You may have noticed in the above description a profound respect for the innate intelligence of the human organism. Her body is simply trying to survive, but this survival attempt speaks with a deep eloquence. Billions of years of evolved physical intelligence — life intelligence — go into these symptoms, these signs and sensations. Who are we to ignore them?
This is why we say in homeopathy that symptoms are the language of the organism. By listening to the language of creation, we are able to help people get well. By listening to the language of life, we honor life, both individual and collective.