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Allopathic medicine, which roughly means “other than the disease” in Greek, is a term coined by homeopathy practitioner and founder Samuel Hahnemann. It is meant to describe the medical treatments of the early 19th century, such as cupping, leeching, and bloodletting, which treated symptoms of disease in a possibly harmful way. Despite the historical context, the term is still used by some homeopathic doctors today to describe modern or conventional medicine.
In the early 19th century, traditional medical treatments were centered more on treating symptoms rather than understanding and treating the actual disease. This gave way to what was known as “heroic” or allopathic medicine. Instead of understanding the cause of symptoms, doctors typically tried to counteract the symptoms. For example a fever, which often causes flushing of the face, was treated with bloodletting to reduce the amount of blood in the body, therefore reducing flushing.
Hahnemann took issue with this practice, describing his era's medicine as allopathic medicine, and accusing traditional doctors of treating everything but the disease, as they seemed to only focus on the symptoms. Since then, the term allopathic medicine has taken on a derogatory connotation. It is most often used by homeopathic or alternative doctors to generically describe today’s practice of Western medicine.
While Western medicine has moved far beyond the 19th century’s treatment philosophy, the term allopathic medicine can still be used to describe many modern treatments. In the case of constipation, for example, treatment is usually started with laxatives, thus addressing the symptom rather than the root cause. Modern medicine is more focused on diagnosing and treating the disease itself, although allopathic medicine is still used in conjunction with this to treat the symptoms.
Modern scientists and researchers generally understand that a majority of the symptoms associated with any given disease is a result of the body fighting off a disease. Again, in the case of a fever, it is now known that a high temperature is the result of the body fighting a bacteria or virus; as long as the fever is not too high, it should typically be allowed to run its course. While modern medicine usually recognizes the fact that symptoms are often a way for the body heal itself, it also realizes that symptoms can often cause great discomfort, and potentially harm, a patient. Therefore, measures are often taken to relieve symptoms and to allow treatment specifically for the disease to work. Thus, the term allopathic medicine can still be used today, although the majority of western doctors do not describe the type of medicine they practice as allopathic.
As with most things, moderation tends to be key in the medical field. While modern technology and research has moved the practice of medicine far away from true allopathy, there are still some elements of the practice used today. This balance of diagnosing and treating a disease, along with treating symptoms, has generally made medical care much safer than ever before.
There's no doubt that medical practices of 200 years ago sound downright barbaric to modern sensibilities. The funny thing is that some practices, like cupping, have traveled over to the alternative medicine side, and are considered by some to be good remedies for certain conditions.
There are some conditions that alternative medicine simply does not address that Western medicine has found a good treatment for.
I have no problem with alternative therapies, but in my opinion, there has to be a happy medium between treating with nothing but Western medicine and nothing but alternative therapies. Ideologies aside, all medical practitioners should work for the best interests of the patient.