Mechanism vs. vitalism


The key difference between the common medical model, aka Western medicine, and chiropractic, which tends to be similar to many Eastern medical practices, is the concept of vitalism.

In conventional medicine, healthcare is believed to be very mechanistic. The body is broken down into its distinct mechanical systems, such as the digestive system, nervous system, integumentary system, and respiratory system, and a different “specialist” is responsible for caring for each individual system. For example, a pulmonologist is concerned with the respiratory system and a cardiologist specializes in the cardiovascular system. In this model of healing and healthcare, each system acts separately of the other, and disease occurs when there is a mechanical problem in one of those systems. Therefore, for healing to occur, the mechanical dysfunction must be corrected, usually by utilizing an approach that includes medication and/or surgery.

The stumbling block in understanding the benefit of chiropractic care for those people that have ascribed to conventional medicine their entire life is the concept of vitalism. Vitalism is based on the root word “vitality,” which is defined as “the power or ability to continue in existence, live, or grow.” A healing model based on vitalism believes that the body is a dynamic, ever-changing organism, continuously changing and adapting to its needs and desires. Vitalism also assumes that that there is an intelligence and order within the organism that is designed to heal the body, and every system in the body coordinates functions with each other system. One example of this intelligence in the body is the concept of healing following a cut. The body knows without any input from the individual to send certain inflammatory factors to kill off any bacteria, activate clotting factors to stop the bleeding, and initiate tissue growth to heal the wound.

Chiropractic is designed on the concept of vitalism. In chiropractic, it is believed that the body has an innate intelligence to healing, and disease occurs when the body’s natural ability to heal is interrupted. The thing that disrupts this innate intelligence is something called a subluxation, which is a mechanical dysfunction of the vertebrae that blocks the normal function of the nervous system. By removing these subluxations through gentle and precise adjustments, the interference is removed and the body’s innate intelligence is able to function fully and properly. In essence, with chiropractic, true healing is coming from within the body rather than from the chiropractor’s adjustment. Overall, conventional medicine is based on an outside-in approach where healing comes from something being added to the body, such as medicine or surgery, while chiropractic is based on an inside-out approach where healing occurs when the body’s own healing powers are activated.

The concepts of mechanism and vitalism are not mutually exclusive ideas. In certain situations, the mechanistic approach is going to be preferred, such as when the body has been in such a period of decay that self-healing is no longer possible or following traumatic events like hemorrhaging after an automobile accident. However, the majority of diseases affecting Americans, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, are governed by lifestyle and diet, which are better treated by a vitalistic approach. Therefore, a healing art based on vitalistic concepts, such as chiropractic, would be beneficial for the majority of health concerns, leaving the conventional medical approach available for when all the natural and holistic options have been exhausted.