I frequently hear that a Swollen tongue indicates Qi deficiency. It is not so! In my experience, a Swollen tongue indicates Phlegm. But let us start by describing it first. A tongue is “Swollen” when the whole body is larger than normal. Crucially, a Swollen tongue is also somewhat rounder than a normal tongue. In very severe cases of Swollen tongue, the tongue may be almost perfectly round. Before describing the clinical significance of a Swollen tongue, let us look at the clinical significance of a Thin tongue (i.e. the opposite of a Swollen tongue).

Swollen

As we all know, a Thin tongue indicates a deficiency of fluids, which may be Blood (is the tongue is Pale) or Yin fluids (if the tongue lacks a coating). It follows, therefore, that a Swollen tongue, being the opposite of a thin tongue, indicates that there is an excess of fluids. These “excess” fluids are not normal fluids but the accumulation of pathological fluids, i.e. either Dampness or Phlegm. I personally relate the swelling of the tongue body more to Phlegm than to Dampness (the latter reflected more on the coating).

I attach huge importance to the Swollen tongue: indeed, if the tongue is very swollen, I relate that to Phlegm even in the absence of any other symptoms or signs. This is after all an important aspect of tongue diagnosis, i.e. its preventive value. If a patient presents with a Swollen tongue (as in the picture above) I definitely resolve Phlegm. Please note that resolving Phlegm will not only help any internal disease the patient might have but it would also lead to an improvement of a channel problem as Phlegm obstructs the channels.

Please note that a Swollen tongue may be without coating (we would normally expect a sticky coating). This is not at all unusual and it is seen frequently in the elderly: it simply means that there is both Phlegm and Yin deficiency.With acupuncture, to resolve Phlegm I would use these essential points: LU-7, Ren-9, Ren-12, SP-6 and ST-40. Other points that may be added are: BL-22, Ren-5, ST-28, KI-7 depending on the type of Phlegm and symptoms.