Background: Chiropractic emerged in 1895 and was promoted as a viable health care substitute in direct competition with the medical profession. This was an era when there was a belief that one cause and one cure for all disease would be discovered. The chiropractic version was a theory that most diseases were caused by subluxated (slightly displaced) vertebrae interfering with “nerve vibrations” (a supernatural, vital force) and could be cured by adjusting (repositioning) vertebrae, thereby removing the interference with the body’s inherent capacity to heal. DD Palmer, the originator of chiropractic, established chiropractic based on vitalistic principles. Anecdotally, the authors have observed that many chiropractors who overtly claim to be “vitalists” cannot define the term. Therefore, we sought the origins of vitalism and to examine its effects on chiropractic today.
Discussion: Vitalism arose out of human curiosity around the biggest questions: Where do we come from? What is life? For some, life was derived from an unknown and unknowable vital force. For others, a vital force was a placeholder, a piece of knowledge not yet grasped but attainable. Developments in science have demonstrated there is no longer a need to invoke vitalistic entities as either explanations or hypotheses for biological phenomena. Nevertheless, vitalism remains within chiropractic. In this examination of vitalism within chiropractic we explore the history of vitalism, vitalism within chiropractic and whether a vitalistic ideology is compatible with the legal and ethical requirements for registered health care professionals such as chiropractors.
Conclusion: Vitalism has had many meanings throughout the centuries of recorded history. Though only vaguely defined by chiropractors, vitalism, as a representation of supernatural force and therefore an untestable hypothesis, sits at the heart of the divisions within chiropractic and acts as an impediment to chiropractic legitimacy, cultural authority and integration into mainstream health care.
Author keywords: Chiropractic — Vitalism — Social contract — Legitimacy — Cultural authority — Fiduciary duties
Author affiliation: JKS: College of Science, Health, Engineering and Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia; KJY: School of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK
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