Most acupuncturists use pulse reading as a diagnostic tool to provide a deeper understanding of what is going on in the body. The pulse provides an objective view of health, and can give information on imbalances that patiences are either not aware of or cannot put into words. It is another way that East Asian medicine specialists can make sense of your more vague health concerns or figure out how to treat more serious ailments or specific ailments.
My first exposure to pulse reading was when I was seventeen years old and seeing an acupuncturist for the first time. The woman barely knew me. She spent about ten minutes ‘reading’ my pulses and then asked me a series of uncanny questions ranging from bowel movements to interpersonal relationships. She accurately predicted the frequency of my bowel movements and noted that I had a fight with a person dear to me earlier that day. Her pulse reading was uncanny. Years later when I began studying East Asian medicine, this experience funneled me towards extensive studies in pulse diagnosis.
The pulse is felt on both wrists at the radial artery. The most commonly taught pulse-taking method involves three fingers on each wrist. Each finger position relates to a different organ, and each wrist gives information about a different set of organs. Put simply, the right wrist relates mostly to the hollow organs (the digestive system and lungs), while the left wrist relates mostly to the solid organs (the heart, liver, kidneys). It may seem hard to believe, but each finger can pick up completely different sensations of how the blood is moving through the radial artery. Some of the qualities that we look for are called choppy, slippery, biting, deep, thin, tight, tense, and wiry. These are only a few of the qualities that a practitioner can pick up in the pulse. To try to explain it further, the choppy pulse feels like your finger is resting on a turning gear with the edge of each cog tapping the finger. Slippery can feel like a smooth bead sliding under your finger. Biting feels exactly how it sounds. Wiry tends to feel like your finger is resting on the wire of a cheese cutter. These qualities can be in different positions related to different organ systems, or across the entire pulse.
What do these qualities mean? These qualities reflect how smoothly and uniformly the blood is circulating throughout the body. For instance, if you had a hiatal hernia where the upper part of the stomach is poking up through the diaphragm, you will often feel a tense and/or biting quality in the stomach and diaphragm position of the pulse. This condition creates significant tension in the diaphragm, and that tension will then show up in your systemic blood flow. In other words, your blood travels through every aspect of your body. Your body then sends signals through the blood about each organ and reflects turbulence or friction when it exists.
Strong emotions that are influencing your health will also show up in the pulse. Deep sorrow suppresses the pulse. Strong sensations of stress or feeling on guard will create an edge to the pulse. Sometimes it will even create a vibration floating on top of the pulse– this vibration feels like running your fingers over an emery board. Worry, anxiety, and minor stresses will cause the pulse to tighten to different degrees. Anxiety can also cause the pulse to vibrate, speed up, or become amorphous.
The pulse also allows us to monitor the severity of a health concern, and at times can provide clues as to a course of preventative medicine. This happens because the pulse allows us to look not just at blood, but at all body substances including the energy of each vital organ and your overall body. We call this energy or vitality ‘Qi‘. Qi is often the first body substance that gets affected by illness or stress. Qi also bounces back quickly with proper treatment. The pulse helps us to pick up on disease processes that are beginning to form in the Qi of the body, but have not yet progressed to affecting the blood or the organs themselves. With the pulse, we can see when someone is headed towards developing something such as acid reflux before it becomes a truly physical condition.
The qualities also help us to nip a developing health issue in the bud. These qualities show up with different strengths depending on the severity of the condition. The qualities have a ranking system to denote their strength. The pulse system that I study ranks qualities from one to five, other systems will rank with plus signs. One to three means the imbalance is still in the energetics of the organ system. Three is the transition point from energetic to physical. A quality ranked at a four or a five represents a physical change in the organ system or organ’s functioning. Something ranked at a four or five can be found by conventional medicine.
Since there are many layers to pulse reading, it takes a couple years of training to become adept at feeling all of this information in the pulse. It is well worth the time and effort, since pulse reading can provide invaluable information as to the inner-workings of the body. It is objective and can be compared between treatments to monitor improvement or lack of improvement.