If you’ve ever been to an acupuncture clinic, chances are your acupuncturist felt the pulse on your wrist as part of their exam. In Western medicine, your doctor or nurse feels your pulse to determine it’s rate. However, in Chinese medicine, pulse diagnosis is far more complicated.
In Chinese medicine, the quality of your pulse can offer your acupuncturist a great deal of information about the strength of your energy. Taking your pulse is complicated because there are almost thirty different kinds of pulses–many of which are really hard to distinguish from one another. In addition, different positions on your wrist, and the difference between left and right indicate the status of specific organs in Chinese medicine.
Rate. As mentioned above, when you go to your doctor’s office, they take your pulse to measure the beats per minute, or pulse rate. This is also the case in Chinese medicine, but your pulse rate is usually measured in relation to your rate of breathing. In general, a normal pulse rate is four to five beats per breath (inhalation and exhalation). A pulse that’s markedly faster usually indicates some kind of heat in your body. A pulse that’s slower indicates a cold condition, or an abundance of a cold pathogen, like dampness or phlegm.
Depth. Have you ever tried to feel someone’s pulse and had a hard time finding it? Chances are you were struggling because that person had a deep pulse. The level at which your pulse is felt offers some important clues as to the location and nature of your imbalance and symptoms. A pulse that is felt deeply–meaning that you have to apply pressure to feel it–indicates that the cause of your symptoms are deep in your body, and your organs are probably affected.
When your pulse is easily felt without using much pressure, and it disappears when more pressure is applied, then your pulse is considered to be floating, or right on the surface. This means that any pattern affecting you is very exterior in nature–such as a cold or the flu. The next time someone you know gets the flu, ask to feel his or her pulse; it will likely be floating.
Force. The nature of your energy, or Qi, can be determined by the force of your pulse. A pulse that feels weak or forceless is a common indicator of a Qi or Blood depletion. A soggy pulse is one which is felt easily but feels spread out and soft. It may also indicate a Qi or Blood depletion, or, in many cases, dampness (poor water metabolism). An extremely thin or fine pulse also points to a depletion.
In contrast, a full, lively pulse that’s felt easily indicates a healthy abundance of energy. It’s possible, however, to have too much of a good thing. A pulse that feels wiry or extremely tight, like a guitar string, is common in someone who’s experiencing severe pain or someone who is under a lot of stress or has had an emotional upset.
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts. With a pulse diagnosis, it’s the combination of factors that reveals the most information. An acupuncturist will take into account the rate, depth, quality, and differences among the various positions in reaching any conclusions from your pulse. Chinese pulse diagnosis is a subtle art; it takes years of experience for a practitioner to become proficient. While there are infinite pulse variations, which can make interpreting the nuances of your pulse very difficult, pulse diagnosis is an important component of an accurate diagnosis.