I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my tongue, and I am guessing most people don’t. I certainly never thought the appearance of a tongue meant anything in particular, but it may in fact be telling us other parts of our bodies are needing attention.
Just as pain in your back may indicate tension in the muscles through your buttocks and upper legs, your tongue, as described by Dr. Gillian McKieth in You Are What You Eat, is a “window to your organs.”
For example, a midline crack not reaching the tip of your tongue, teeth marks around the sides of your tongue, and a sore tongue indicate a lack of nutrients in your body and may also show you are having problems with your digestive system and spleen.
Aside from more common issues such as canker sores and inflamed taste buds that appear when irritated and resolve in a short period of time, your tongue should appear a lighter shade of pink with a thin white film.
White patches on your tongue can indicate a predecessor of oral cancer called Leukoplakia or a yeast infection called oral thrush, both of which can go away on their own or be treated by your doctor.
A geographic tongue (characterized by red spots that may have a white border and mimic a map on the tongue), a red tongue, or a tongue with enlarged taste buds (often called a strawberry tongue) can indicate a lack of vitamin B, stress, or Kawasaki syndrome (affecting blood vessels in children).
So, what is the rest of your mouth telling you (or your dentist)?
If your dentist sees signs of your tooth enamel wearing down, this generally indicates that you clench or grind your teeth, most commonly while you sleep. This can usually be treated by making night guards for you to wear at night.
During your routine exam, your dentist also examines your gums. While you may not notice this, you probably do notice when your hygienist sticks a pointy looking instrument around the front and back of your teeth in the gums (called probing). They are looking for signs and symptoms that indicate gum health. While gums have a lot to do with your oral health, gums that are receding or swollen can also be an early sign of diabetes or heart disease. While your dentist may recommend a specific type of cleaning used for patients with periodontal disease, you may also want to check your overall health with your family doctor.
Have you ever wondered what your dentist is doing when they lift and check under your lips, poke their fingers around your gums, pull out your cheeks, and then check the top, bottom, sides, and underneath your tongue? What could this have to do with your oral health?! It does in fact have everything to do with your oral health; they are checking for oral cancer. Sores, particularly those that don’t heal, and discoloration can indicate stages of oral cancer. If you have any signs of oral cancer, your dentist will refer you to the appropriate specialist for further evaluation.
“Tongue Problem Basics.” WebMD. Ed. Steve Drescher, DDS. WebMD, LLC, 14 Apr. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.
McKeith, Gillian. You Are What You Eat: The Plan That Will Change Your Life. New York: Dutton, 2005. 33-36. Print.