NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Many people who opt for homeopathic therapy for their chronic ills report lasting improvements in their health, a new study finds.

Among patients at more than 100 German and Swiss homeopathic practices, researchers found that many reported long-term improvements in chronic conditions such as headaches, allergies and sleep problems.

However, the findings do not necessarily mean the controversial alternative therapy is responsible for the benefits, according to the researchers.

Homeopathy, which originated in Germany in the 1700s, is based on the principle of “like cures like” — substances that, according to homeopathy, would create certain symptoms in a person can, in a highly diluted form, treat those same symptoms.

Homeopathy is controversial because a number of its central concepts do not accord with modern science, and many studies have found that the remedies are no more effective than inactive placebo substances.

The current study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, looked only at how homeopathy patients tend to fare in their everyday life. Therefore, it does not settle the question of whether the remedies are actually effective, lead researcher Dr. Claudia Witt told Reuters Health.

“This observational study design does not allow (us) to determine any causality between the improvement and the given homeopathic remedy, nor does it exclude the placebo effect,” said Witt, of Charite University Medical Center in Berlin.

The findings are based on an eight-year follow-up of 3,709 adults and children treated at 103 homeopathic practices. At the end of that time, Witt’s team found, one-third were still undergoing homeopathic treatment, while a bit less than a third had stopped because their health had improved, and a similar proportion had stopped because they felt their treatment was not working.

On average, the study found, patients did report significant improvements in their symptoms over time. Nearly half said their symptom severity had declined by at least 50 percent.

However, Witt and her colleagues say, it’s not possible to tell whether the homeopathic treatments bestowed the benefits, because many patients also used other types of alternative care, as well as conventional medicine.

The placebo effect may also have been at work, according to the researchers, with some patients feeling better simply because they believed the homeopathic remedies would help.

SOURCE: BMC Public Health, online December 17, 2008.