The following is an excerpt from my book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health. To order, just click the Amazon link at the right side of this page.
Part of making an accurate diagnosis in Chinese medicine involves your acupuncturist looking at your tongue, which can offer information about the state of your health. Usually, the condition of your tongue serves to confirm a diagnosis that your practitioner has already made. However, in some instances, your tongue may offer additional details that help your practitioner make a more complete diagnosis.
Changes in the appearance of your tongue are helpful in determining the status of your health. In general, tongue appearance is slow to change when dealing with internal conditions or imbalances of your organs. However, with an external illness, like a cold or the flu, the appearance of your tongue may change more rapidly. For example, someone with the flu who is running a fever may have a very red tongue until the fever subsides. In contrast, a patient who is being treated for internal heat may find it takes longer for the red appearance of their tongue to change.
I had been treating Jeff, a regular patient, for about a year. Recently he came to me for a severe muscle pull in his hip. He had pulled the muscle playing tennis about three weeks before; the injury was so severe he could barely walk.
In his late forties, Jeff was usually very healthy. He ate well and was physically active most days. He was sick infrequently, and used acupuncture as a way to stay well. His tongue was usually light red with a thin white coat.
During Jeff’s third treatment for the muscle pull, he became extremely short of breath. He shared that he had experienced a similar episode the previous evening, in which he felt pain in his rib cage and shortness of breath. I immediately stopped the treatment and urged Jeff to get emergency medical care, which he did.
The emergency doctor diagnosed Jeff as having an injury or muscle pull between his ribs, and presribed a pain medication. The doctor also informed Jeff that an injury of this type would take several weeks to heal.
Jeff continued to see me during this time. He didn’t like taking the pain medication, because it upset his stomach and made it burn. In addition, Jeff complained that he just didn’t feel right, and rather than getting better over time, he was actually feeling worse.
During this period, I examined Jeff’s tongue on several occasions. His normally healthy tongue had taken on a bluish hue and had a vivid red spot right in the center. As time went on and Jeff didn’t improve, his tongue became a dark bluish-purple in color, and the red spot remained. This change in Jeff’s tongue was somewhat puzzling; his muscle pull was a stagnation that could cause his tongue to take on a bluish or purple color, but Jeff’s tongue had become really dark.
After several weeks. Jeff had had enough of not feeling well, and with my urging, he went to his regular doctor for a full physical. His doctor ordered a number of tests and sent Jeff to a lung specialist. The lung specialist diagnosed the pain in Jeff’s chest as a blood clot, probably from the deep muscle pull in his hip, which had traveled to one of his lungs, causing his lung to fill with fluid–a potentially life-threatening condition.
With this diagnosis, the change in appearance of Jeff’s tongue now made complete sense. His normally light-red tongue had become blue and eventually dark purple, because he had a major stagnation in his chest, which was impeding his ability to breathe. The red spot in the center indicated the irritation to Jeff’s stomach caused by the pain medication he had been taking.
Jeff ultimately made a complete recovery, not only from the blood clot, but also from the muscle pull in his hip. The bluish-purple appearance of his tongue changed back to pale red over time, and the bright red spot in the center faded as his stomach recovered.