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Only Skin Deep--Or Is It?
by Pamela A. Pappas MD, MD(H)



Editor´s Note: In our fast paced, stress filled culture, skin ailments like acne and eczema--just to name two--are very common among susceptible people, even adults. In her superb article, Pamela explains the homeopathic interpretation of chronic skin ailments as a reflection of a deeper, systemic imbalance  that needs to be treated wholistically. Of particular note is Pamela's discussion of the process of healing as it pertains to skin issues--slow but sure!

Skin is amazing. It’s flaunted, ogled, and tanned within an inch of its life. It’s our body’s largest (and heaviest!) organ, but gets taken for granted until something goes wrong. Still, it releases toxins, keeps our innards warm, juicy and safe, and continuously renews itself. It even finds time to make Vitamin D!

Amidst all this multi-tasking, skin also communicates. In fact, skin and nerve cells come from the same developmental forebear. No wonder mind and emotion express themselves so eloquently through skin—blushing, hives, and “goose bumps” are examples. We also get emotional about our skin, especially when it’s red, dry, wrinkly, or bumpy! And then, we might be off to a doctor.

Conventional Western medicine explores the language of skin with care, because it may reveal signs of deeper disease. These are investigated and treated, often with steroid creams, antibiotics, or antifungal medications. If there’s no systemic illness and the situation seems more superficial, these symptom-suppressive medications may be continued indefinitely.

Classical homeopathy is a 200-year-old system of medicine that also explores the language of skin, and like Psychiatry, listens for its deeper messages. But it uses specially prepared medicines (“remedies”) made from natural substances to stimulate healing from within. Homeopathic medicines fall under FDA supervision, can be sold without prescription, and are usually available (at least in lower potencies) through health food stores.

In homeopathy, sometimes a skin problem really is “only skin deep”—such as poison ivy rash, bug bites, or other injury. Here, one can often get healing results by matching symptoms in a good materia medica (a book that lists and describes homeopathic medicines with their effects) and using indicated remedies. However, if the skin issue is long-standing or has multiple flares and remissions over time, it’s likely part of a systemic imbalance. In this situation, it’s wise to consult a homeopath. S/he not only attends to the skin symptoms, but to the entire person; this includes other physical problems as well as how the person feels, thinks, and acts. Though it’s hard to imagine a dermatologist asking about dreams when working up a chronic skin problem, a homeopath almost always wants to hear them (as well as many other symptoms unique to that individual.)

Homeopaths prescribe by studying the person’s symptoms and then finding a remedy from the natural world that causes similar effects. This corresponds to the “Law of Similars”, which states that a substance causing certain symptoms when given in a high dose can also cure those same symptoms when given in a very small (dilute) dose.

So after a wasp sting, the skin might be red, swollen, burning and worse from exposure to heat. The homeopathic remedy Apis, made from live bees (and which would cause the same redness, heat, and swelling in high dose), could help these symptoms resolve very quickly. Or, someone with a florid outbreak of poison ivy (skin is red, swollen, itches intensely and is much worse at night) might respond to the remedy Rhus toxicodendron, prepared from the poison ivy plant.

Unfortunately it’s not quite so easy—there are at least 25 remedies commonly used for poison ivy rashes! The effective remedy depends on the person’s specific type of reaction to poison ivy, rather than on the pathologic diagnosis (“contact dermatitis from poison ivy”). We each have our individual response, requiring individualized treatment.

If you do try to treat poison ivy rash with Rhus toxicodendron (or one of the many other possibilities), the health food store might stock remedies in 6X to 30X, or 6C to 30C “potencies”. These numbers indicate how the dilution of the original substance is made: X = 10 and C= 100. For instance, “6X” means that 1 drop of mother tincture is placed in 9 drops of water or alcohol, shaken, and the process repeated 6 times. In “30C”, 1 drop of tincture goes in 99 drops of solvent, is shaken, and the process is repeated 30 times. So this is definitely not like rubbing yourself with a poison ivy leaf, or taking raw tincture! One would take 2-3 remedy pellets under the tongue every 2-4 hours as needed. Reduce dose frequency as the patient responds; if there is no change after a day, re-evaluate and try a different remedy.

Skin is also prone to trauma and bruising; the remedy Arnica montana, made from the European herb “leopard’s bane”, is well-known in treating this. This plant grows in mountains, where falls and injuries are common! Depending on how extensive the injury, one could use Arnica in sublingual pellets as above, or rub Arnica cream on the area directly (as long as there is no broken skin.)

Arnica was my own entree into homeopathy. After working out too hard with a new trainer, I was a bundle of muscular agony the next day. A knowledgeable friend took pity on me, struggling to rise from my chair. Within 20 minutes of being given Arnica 30C, I could move without pain! It seemed miraculous to me; I started studying and haven’t stopped since.

Interestingly, some plastic surgeons are starting to use homeopathic Arnica to decrease post-operative swelling and bruising in their face-lift patients. The Archives of Facial and Plastic Surgery1 recently published a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study using computer analysis of bruising in patients treated peri-operatively with either homeopathic Arnica or placebo. Neither the patients nor professional staff could tell a subjective difference between the two groups. But computer analysis documented significantly less bruising and swelling in patients receiving homeopathic Arnica.

Another study integrating homeopathy with conventional medicine followed women experiencing radiation-induced itching after treatment for breast cancer.2 In this condition, the skin is usually also dry, rough and very red. Patients received homeopathic remedies individualized to their particular clinic presentation, and recorded visual analog scales before and after treatment. Symptoms resolved in 21 of 25 (84%)patients, but some needed a second remedy. One of the remedies used was our poison ivy friend, Rhus toxicodendron!

While acute bites, stings, cuts, and rashes are painful, many people struggle even more with longstanding skin conditions such as acne and eczema. Homeopaths view such conditions differently than do conventional physicians, who often limit treatment to medicines that suppress inflammation or kill skin pathogens thought responsible for the problem. Once such medicines are stopped, the condition may flare again.

In contrast, homeopaths consider the person’s entire being, including skin; they see skin symptoms as part of a total picture arising from a systemic imbalance. They interview the person in order to perceive core healing issues and link these to a corresponding “constitutional” remedy that covers the complete picture. This single remedy system distinguishes classical homeopathy from other forms of homeopathy, which might use multiple remedies simultaneously.

Homeopathy’s treatment goal is safe, effective, and gradual healing of issues on all levels, including the skin. There are certainly remedies known to help acne (such as the mineral Calcarea sulphurica) and eczema (i.e., the mineral Sulphur, or Graphites, made from carbon). But the ideal remedy for such chronic conditions could be any of the nearly 5000 known, depending on the person’s total presentation.

Another difference between conventional and homeopathic treatment involves the healing process itself. Conventional physicians might view treatment as successful if it simply controls the skin problem. But a homeopath’s intentions are holistic, with systemic goals in addition to healing the initial complaint.

Accordingly, the process of homeopathic healing may improve the person’s overall health before the eczema or acne responds. So results may seem to be “slower”, since they are growing in less immediately visible places. At times a chronic skin condition may even flare temporarily, especially in resolution of deeper issues (such as depression or anxiety). This might be unwelcome to patients wanting perfect skin immediately, but it’s actually a sign that the remedy is stimulating the body’s mechanisms in a positive way (healing is proceeding from inner to outer, from more vital to less vital organs). If the process goes the opposite direction (say, the eczema or acne disappears but the patient develops deeper symptoms such as asthma or depression), this would mean a decline in health – not a desirable result!

Willingness to work with homeopathy in our “quick fix” culture often requires an attitude adjustment about what health really is and what it means when skin “acts up.” Billy Crystal’s ‘Fernando’ character on Saturday Night Live satirized the popular view in his famous line, “It’s better to look good than to feel good!” Well, is it really, and do we have the patience to consider otherwise?

My conventional medical training highlighted the body’s attempts to maintain health, as well as the language of its symptoms. But it never suggested that healing is a process moving from inner to outer, or that tracking this could be useful in patient care. My homeopathic training did offer these concepts, which apply to clinical progress in all realms of medicine. It also suggests that skin can be the last area to heal in effective whole-system treatment.

Truly integrative medicine is healing-oriented, views people as whole, and brings together all useful approaches for optimal health. Skin helps hold us together, and sings about the life of the person inside. Classical homeopathy can be a safe, gentle, and effective way of answering its cries for help. By listening closely, we might even hear the music of healing.



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About the Author
Pamela A. Pappas MD, MD(H) is a board-certified psychiatrist and classical homeopath practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is a graduate of the Homeopathic Practitioner Certificate Program at American Medical College of Homeopathy in Phoenix AZ; the Vital Sensation training program with California Center for Homeopathic Education in San Diego CA; and Dr. Andrew Weil’s Program in Integrative Medicine fellowship in Tucson AZ. She loves the natural world, the people she meets, and serving life in all. Her web site is www.drpampappas.com.
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