When you think about a health practitioner feeling the pulse on your wrist, do you automatically assume they are checking your heart rate? Often this is the case with a Western doctor, but if you’re visiting a practitioner of Chinese medicine, they’re taking your pulse to get far more information beyond the rate at which your heart is beating. In Chinese medicine, the characteristics of your pulse tell your practitioner a great deal of information about your overall health, a possible diagnosis, and how best to treat you.
There are about 27 different pulse types or combinations that your acupuncturist may feel, making pulse reading a complicated skill to learn. It can take years of practice to do it well, but a good practitioner can gather a great deal of information from your pulse alone. Here’s a little information about Chinese pulse reading:
How It’s Done
Pulse reading is usually taken at the radial artery of your wrist, and both sides are felt, because they can differ in quality. Your practitioner will use three fingers, because she’s feeling for differences at three different positions; nearest your wrist crease, mid-position, and the rearmost position. Each position corresponds to a different organ system in your body.
Like your Western doctor, a Chinese medical practitioner also pays attention to the rate of your pulse. However, in Chinese medicine your pulse rate reveals more than just the state of your heart. A pulse rate that is about four or five beats to one breath, or about 60 beats per minute is considered to be normal. If your pulse is much faster than that, it indicates that there’s heat of some kind going on in your body. That heat may be inflammation, infection, or a fever. If your pulse is dramatically slower, it suggests that your body is cold, or that you’re depleted in some way. One exception is that athletes or people who do a great deal of physical labor, who tend to have a slow pulse. In their case, a slow pulse occurs from a training effect and is considered to be normal.
How weak or strong your pulse feels is an indication of the quality of your overall energy. A strong, easily felt pulse suggests that your overall body constitution is also strong. However, if your pulse is weak and hard to find, it’s likely that you’re run down or depleted in some way. For example, a young man in his early twenties is usually at the peak of his health and vitality, and therefore should have a robust pulse. However, if his pulse was faint and difficult to feel, a practitioner would suspect that his health was compromised in some way.
When you get sick, the depth of your pulse can also offer up some clues as to what’s going on. If you have a cold or mild flu, your pulse will be felt on the surface, almost like it’s trying to push the illness out of your body. However, if you have a more serious illness or symptoms that are affecting your body systemically, your pulse will feel deeper, indicating that what’s upsetting your health is lodged deeper in your body. Therefore, a deeply felt pulse is common in people who have chronic conditions or illnesses.
The Quality of Your Pulse
Beyond, rate, strength, and depth, your pulse also has a quality or personality. It can feel soft, tight, rolling, thready, rough, or soggy to name a few. For example, a wiry and tight pulse is felt in people who are in a lot of pain, very stressed, or are emotionally upset. A pulse that feels soggy and soft, or one that you can feel coming and going may indicate that you’re not metabolizing fluids well and you’re retaining water. An irregular pulse with skipped beats can indicate heart issues, anxiety, or insomnia.
Your pulse will change over time as your health changes. If you’ve been sick or run down, your deep and weak pulse will become stronger as your recover. As you age, your pulse tends to slow down, and men tend to have a stronger pulse in general than women. Medications can also affect your pulse. Steroids, blood pressure medications, amphetamines, thyroid medications, decongestants, and some antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can all affect the quality of your pulse. Older adults who are taking heart medications such as digoxin or digitalis can have an unusually strong and forceful pulse for someone of their age and state of health.
When you combine all the factors, including rate, depth, strength, and quality, there are literally an infinite number of possible pulses. It takes a deep understanding not only of pulse reading, but also of Chinese medicine to be able to translate the nuances of your pulse into what it means for your health. Those who do it well recognize that a good pulse diagnosis can offer up a clearer picture of your condition.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.