A Closer Look at the Tongue
‘STICK out your tongue and say Aahh!’ One can only imagine the number of times that doctors have repeated this over the years. Physicians have long appreciated the importance of the tongue’s appearance when examining a sick person. Particularly in times past, doctors had to rely more on their own powers of observation than on laboratory tests.
While the tongue does reflect some changes or diseased states in other parts of the body, it has been found that it can seldom be used to diagnose a specific disease. However, scarlet fever is one of the diseases in which the condition of the tongue is important in diagnosis, a person with this disease having what is called “strawberry tongue.”
The Tongue and Its Surface
A unique organ, the tongue is a very mobile bundle of muscles covered with an extremely sensitive surface. The muscles in the tongue can flatten it, curl up the tip and even the edges when you whistle. These movements are possible because the muscles in the tongue are interwoven and go in several directions. There are muscles that start at the tip and extend toward the back. There are muscles that go generally from side to side. And there are those that go up and down. These all help to give the tongue its various movements.
The tongue’s surface is made up of numerous small projections that give it a somewhat velvety feel. (In the cat family tongue projections are big enough and hard enough to give the tongue’s surface the feel of a rasp.) These small projections (called “papillae”) can be seen easily by protruding your tongue and drying a small area with a soft, clean cloth. If one does this, one will note that there are different types of elevations.
The most numerous ones are the pink, slender, threadlike structures that are uniformly distributed over the surface of the tongue. These are usually the first to disappear in some diseased states, including certain nutritional disorders.
Another kind of small projection is like little rounded bumps on the tongue’s surface. There are fewer of these mushroom-shaped elevations, and they are generally a little redder than the others. They also disappear at times.
If you stick your tongue out far enough, you will be able to see a larger kind of small projections on the very back part of your tongue near the throat. They are like squat towers surrounded by a moat. There are from seven to eleven of these round projections forming a “V” across the back of your tongue.
Still other projections appear as folds on the sides of the tongue near the back.
The tongue’s surface sometimes becomes “furred” or coated. Actually the formation of a coating on the tongue is a natural and continuous process. However, this coating is usually removed by saliva flow, chewing of food, talking and swallowing. The coating is generally composed of small food particles, bacteria and tissue cells that are sloughed off the surface of the tongue in a way similar to that in which your skin sheds dead cells. The amount of coating that develops, of course, varies with each individual and also at different times of the day.
Any condition that interferes with the normal cleaning of the tongue may produce an abnormally coated tongue. Among the factors that can contribute to this are soft diet, mouth breathing for some, lack of attention to mouth hygiene, smoking, dehydration during fevers, and lack of normal saliva flow. Generally speaking, a furred or coated tongue indicates a somewhat lowered condition of health. When a person has a digestive upset, the shedding process of the tongue’s cells is impaired, and they accumulate, resulting in a “furred” tongue. In many cases a coating can be cleansed from the tongue with a toothbrush at the time the teeth are brushed.
Other Changes and Conditions
Changes in the surface texture and color of the tongue are probably of much more significance than the coating. Even here, though, a physician needs to know more about an individual before he can diagnose a specific disease. The tongue does reflect changes in other parts of the body, but it is not decisive. The tongue’s condition may indicate the need for the physician to do further checking to locate the cause.
There are diseases that can affect the tongue specifically, such as cancer and syphilis. However, the tongue more often will show changes or conditions that are really harmless. The names are sometimes more frightening than the condition itself—names such as hairy or black tongue and geographic tongue describe conditions that are generally harmless.
So do not jump to unwarranted conclusions if your tongue seems have a strange appearance. The cause could be as minor as the sharp edge of a tooth or filling, which can cause an irritation of your tongue. Of course, this should be taken care of so as not to cause further damage.
One of the most common causes of an undesirable tongue condition is said to be a deficiency of vitamin B. Grooves and ridges in the tongue have been attributed to a prolonged lack of vitamin B. It has been found that a sore, purplish tongue may be caused by a vitamin B2 deficiency. In pernicious anemia the tongue has a beefy red color and is smooth and shiny, indicating a lack of vitamin B12. A brilliant red tongue may be caused by a deficiency of niacinamide (nicotinamide). And some believe that a large beefy tongue may result from a pantothenic-acid deficiency.
Vital for Effective Speech
So important is the tongue for speaking that the phrase “a foreign tongue” also means “a foreign language.” Even the English word “language” comes from a French word meaning “tongue.” In persons whose tongue has been removed, speech is extremely defective.
During speech the tongue movements are perhaps the most precise movements that this organ can make. By touching and not touching the teeth and the roof of the mouth, the tongue helps in the formation and articulation of the various sounds. If you say the alphabet very slowly in your language, you will note the many movements your tongue has to make. Watching someone else speak is another way to appreciate its rapid movements. Some have tried to master lingual dexterity with their tongues by quickly saying what are known as tongue twisters, such as ‘rubber baby buggy bumpers’ and ‘the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.’
Even some very simple words keep the tongue busy. Take the word “things,” for example. By pressing lightly against the backs of the upper teeth, so as to interfere with the breath stream and produce the requisite friction, the tongue articulates the voiceless “th.” It then moves downward and backward and then up again to point the tip toward the ridge so as to direct a constricted, compressed breath stream against the cutting edges of the lower teeth. The tongue then is active in articulating the “s.” Just for one word there can be a lot of movement by this bundle of muscles. Multiply this by 150 to 200 words per minute, and you can see how fast the tongue must move to keep up with your mind.
Delight from Taste
A most delightful function of the tongue is that of picking up and transmitting the taste sensation. This sensation is picked up by about 3,000 taste buds that are located among the tiny projections that give the tongue its surface. Each of these buds responds only to the kind of taste for which it was designed.
There are four fundamental tastes that the tongue perceives: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Each of the basic tastes is located more or less in a specific area of the tongue’s surface. Sweet things can be tasted on the tip of the tongue. Those taste buds along the sides near the tip pick up the sensation of saltiness. Also along the sides but toward the back are taste buds that transmit sour sensations. Bitterness is tasted near the back of the tongue by the throat. An area in the center of the tongue has no taste buds.
What a joy these little chemical receptors can bring while eating a properly seasoned meal! And the Creator has provided such a variety of tasty foods for man’s pleasure and delight. Contrast this with how food seems so tasteless when you have a bad head cold, and you can appreciate the value of a healthy tongue. Your tongue may tell a physician a few things about your health, but in the realms of speech and taste it is of a great deal more value to you.