acupuncture and speech_fullBy Sara Calabro

Political debates, speeches and media appearances for the 2012 Presidential campaign are in full swing. Speaking ability is a highly valuable commodity, as candidates’ every words are being nit picked for pronunciation, clarity and intention. Although we may chuckle at their verbal fumbles, many of us can commiserate with the feeling of being tongue tied.

From an acupuncture perspective, the inability to clearly articulate thoughts suggests a disharmony in the Heart system. But difficulties with speech run the gamut. They include things like stuttering and aphasia, and sudden speech loss prior to giving a presentation. Some people speak at volumes that are inappropriately loud or soft, at rates that are too fast or slow, or just generally too much or too little.

All of these speech difficulties get acupuncturists thinking in the direction of Heart.

Speech pathologies are matters of the Heart

Acupuncture theory speaks of five sensory organs—nose, ears, eyes, mouth and tongue—each of which corresponds with an organ system. The nose is associated with Lung; the ears with Kidney; the eyes with Liver; the mouth with Spleen; and the tongue with Heart.

Since speech is primarily a function of the tongue, Heart disharmonies can compromise speaking ability.

The acupuncture explanation for how speech relates to the tongue includes the obvious: To speak, we need to move our tongue. However, the relationship does not end there.

Classical acupuncture texts refer to the tongue as the “sprout of the Heart.” It is said that “the Heart opens to the tongue.” This is straightforward in the sense that the condition of the Heart is reflected in the color and shape of the tongue, just as tongue problems such as ulcers are addressed by treating the Heart system. But it also refers to less tangible, more energetic qualities associated with the Heart.

The Heart system has to do with our ability to connect with the world around us. As the organ system that relates most directly to spirit, Heart controls our sense of self-awareness, of understanding our role in a given situation and acting accordingly. As this relates to speech, the Heart allows us to choose the right words and deliver them in an appropriate way. It allows us to connect through dialog.

So what about speech problems that go beyond social inconvenience, things like delayed speech or aphasia after a stroke?

In addition to governing spirit, the Heart is said to house the mind, the closest metaphor for which is the brain in biomedicine. Anything having to do with disrupted sensory perception or cognitive ability often involves a Heart imbalance.

Wang Ju-Yi and Jason Robertson, in their fantastic book Applied Channel Theory in Chinese Medicine, explain how the Heart’s spiritual and mind-related functions affect the tongue and relate to post-stroke speech problems:

“Spirit function involves the ability of a person to clearly recognize the nature of the world at large. This is both similar to and greater than the idea of ‘consciousness.’ A person is conscious if they are awake but may not necessarily be able to clearly recognize things. In the case of stroke, for example, a patient may appear completely conscious but often seems unable to recognize the world around them in the same way….In this type of stroke patient, the ability to speak is often also compromised. More specifically, this type of patient may have relatively normal tongue movement, but nevertheless be unable to properly vocalize ideas because of changes in the brain itself.”

Treating the Heart is not the definitive answer to all speech problems. For example, Kidney disharmonies can affect speech because the Kidney channel travels to the root of the tongue. The Spleen, because the mouth is its associated sensory organ, can be involved as well.

Acupuncturists treat speech difficulties, like all conditions, according to each individual’s constitution and combination of symptoms. However, because of the Heart’s unique relationship to the tongue and the role of spirit in speech, Heart disharmonies are present in a large number of cases.

Speech therapists and public-speaking coaches who advise their clients to “speak from the heart” are really onto something.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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