Why Do You Look At My Tongue?
It’s a common inquiry for Chinese Medicine practitioners. Maybe not in the first visit, but as patients become more familiar with their practitioner, the question usually arises in some form or another: Why do you look at my tongue? What are you finding? Does it really change?
Most practitioners, myself included, offer some sort of abbreviated explanation: “It’s a look into the organ network system and provides valuable insight into your health picture.”
At this point in time, most patients are satisfied with an answer, even if they don’t quite understand the implications. This blog is dedicated to the inquisitive ones: the ones who still want to ask another question (or ten) about the tongue and how it communicates without words.
There are three main categories of observing the tongue that are important to your acupuncturist.
Tongue Body Color
The color of the tongue body indicates the overall, predominant condition in the body. It can be helpful in determining which pattern is most prevalent (most ailments have 2-5 patterns). In other words, it’s a bit like the external skin of the onion. It is a visible reflection of the pattern and must be addressed first, in order to get to the center.
For example, if someone is experiencing symptoms that we would categorize as both cold and hot, a bright red tongue body can indicate that the heat symptoms are more predominant and must be addressed first.
A healthy amount of Stomach fluids would create a pale tongue body, whereas a healthy quality of Heart blood would create a red tongue body. Together, a pale red tongue body is the gold standard, as these two primary fluids in the body indicate good health.
Tongue Body Shape
The actual shape of the tongue itself offers a primary differentiation between excess or deficient conditions for the observer.
For example, in the case of shoulder pain, a swollen tongue body might indicate the pattern involved is dampness, an excess condition. However, if the tongue body is thin and flaccid, the pattern beneath the shoulder pain would be of a deficient nature; simply not enough blood and qi to nourish the joint.
A healthy tongue body manifests as supple, neither swollen nor thin, and without cracks. The tongue of a baby is a good example of a healthy tongue body.
The tongue coating is an early indication as to the condition of overall fluids in the body. Healthy physiological fluids will manifest as a thin, white coat throughout the tongue. If the Stomach fluids are healthy, there is enough water in the pot to turn food into digestible stew. Healthy Stomach functionality is at the center of good health in the Chinese medicine viewpoint.
The Tongue vs the Pulse
While both tongue and pulse inform the diagnosis, the pulse tends to be more quick to change. The pulse changing within a treatment session can indicate whether the pattern has been adjusted or whether more points are needed. The tongue changes slowly over time and is more helpful with writing herbal formulas.
Tongue In Cheek Conclusion
Set your shyness aside and stick out your tongue. It’s one of the ways we understand how your body is responding to treatment, and yes, it does change. Fair warning: you may find yourself looking at your own tongue in the months to come. This phenomenon is common and completely normal.
Julie Baron is an East Asian Medicine Practitioner at the Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. Julie seeks to empower individuals and communities. As a movement and mindfulness educator, she has a penchant for functional anatomy. As an EAMP, she has also has a passion for herbal medicine.
Haha, I like that last line 😉