Patients, when asked to stick out their tongue, often wonder what on earth their Chinese doctors are looking at. In short, we’re looking for certain signs, texture, moisture, coat quality, shape, and color, to confirm our diagnosis.
An irregular tongue texture, for instance, can indicate signs of heat. We might translate “heat” into biomedical terms like inflammation and fever. By contrast, excess moisture is suggestive of metabolic deficiencies, perhaps an under active thyroid. A glassy tongue coat reflects a very deeply seated infection that has damaged the body’s overall strength.
The tongue is a chief diagnostic tool much like a thermometer only much richer in the quality of information. For example, a thermometer will definitely be able to tell you that you’re running a temperature, but it won’t be able to tell you where the heat is located. The tongue, however, in many circumstances can offer a good clue as to where the an infection is hanging out in the body. This is because different places on the tongue, say the tip, the edges, its root, all correspond to particular parts of the body. Thus the tongue is a kind of map of the body, a micro-system not altogether different from the micro-systems of the foot and hand, popularized by reflexology. Each micro-system does have it’s particularities. The tongue seems to be a particularly good diagnostic tool for apprehending the condition of the body’s digestive system.
The tongue presentation is helpful for prescribing herbal formulas. Two individuals may present with the same problem, say respiratory infection, but show differing tongue pictures, due to the difference in each individual to fight pathogenic invasion in light of preexisting conditions. A person who has lung weakness, for example, will respond differently to the same bug as someone with digestive weakness. Evaluating the tongue is a reliable guide for making such determinations.
A 23 y.o. female came to me for relief from a respiratory infection that had been lingering for the better part of three months. A month prior she had taken a round of antibiotics with no improvement. Chief symptoms were malaise and congestion. Her tongue was sticky, white, and frothy. From the tongue, I deduced that her problem originated from a stagnant digestive mechanism. I prescribed for her a formula used commonly for food poisoning and hangovers. Her case resolved in 10 days.
Tongue picture is much more valuable in diagnosing chronic conditions than it is for trauma. In other words, tongue diagnosis is useful in cases of osteoporosis, but not really for an ankle sprain. Still, acute conditions often have a chronic component that until the trauma occurred was subclinical. In other words, a fracture due to trauma may be due to underlying osteoporosis. Thus, the tongue along with other factors can allow us to make such a determination.
Chinese medicine differentiates between the branch and root of a condition. The branch is generally the symptoms that send a person in search of relief. The root is the what the doctor of Chinese medicine diagnoses to get at the source of the problem. The tongue gives a picture of what is happening at the source.