If you’ve ever been to an acupuncturist, it’s likely that they looked at your tongue as part of an examination into your symptoms and health history. Most of the time, my patients will ask me what I see when I look at their tongue. Some points to understanding tongue diagnosis are covered here.
What very few of my patients ask is “Why do you look at my tongue?” Most people will just accept the fact that their tongue can offer all kinds of clues to their health and never question why that is so.
There are really two aspects to why a practitioner of Chinese medicine will look at your tongue. One is the tongue body, which is the large muscle that makes up the bulk of your tongue. An examination of the tongue body involves studying its color, shape, moisture, and bearing. The tongue is richly supplied with blood vessels and nerves, and its appearance can change very easily over the course of a disease.
A second aspect of tongue examination involves looking at the coating. In Chinese medicine, your tongue is the gateway to your digestion, and the state of your tongue coating arises from how well you digest and metabolize foods and fluids. A healthy person will have a fine, white coating on their tongue. However, if a person has a thick coating, a peeled looking tongue, or no coating, it may indicate that their digestion isn’t up to par.
Erik, a patient who came to me several years ago, is a good example of tongue diagnosis uncovering some deeper health issues. When Erik first came to my office, he was looking for pain relief from a shoulder injury. His shoulder pain had been a nagging nuisance for the better part of a year, but had recently gotten much worse. Erik had a job in which he traveled almost every week, and his shoulder pain was making it hard for him to lift his luggage.
At his first treatment, when I finished talking to Erik about his shoulder and his overall health, I had a fairly clear idea as to how I would treat him with acupuncture—that is until I asked to see his tongue. Erik’s tongue was red with a thick and patchy yellow coating, which was not at all what I expected to see. The red color and thick coating told me there was more going on with Erik’s health than just a shoulder injury. The appearance of Erik’s tongue indicated that he had dampness and heat in his body, most likely due to poor digestion. In Erik’s case, the dampness and heat could cause or aggravate the pain in his shoulder. Looking at Erik’s tongue made me to go back and ask more questions and revise my treatment plan for him.
Had I not looked carefully at Erik’s tongue, he would have gotten an incomplete treatment. For more on tongue diagnosis, check out Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.