Pulse Diagnosis: The Art of Chinese Pulse Taking

Pulse Taking on Left Wrist
Pulse Taking on Left Wrist

Pulse diagnosis has been made into an art form by the Chinese, whereas few Western-trained doctors know how to evaluate your pulse, except by counting it.

Learning to recognise the different qualities takes effort and experience, but for acupuncturists it’s worth it!

What does Pulse Diagnosis mean? The doctor or nurse who takes your pulse the usual way just counts your radial pulse rate. 

The ‘Normal’ rate is 72 per minute. Often they don’t wait a minute while doing it: they count it for 15 seconds, and multiply by 4 to get the rate for a whole minute.

Someone trained in Chinese Pulse Diagnosis would probably take much longer than 15 seconds.

Why? Surely a pulse-rate is a pulse-rate?

Here you’ve exposed a weakness in Western medicine, which has trapped itself into judging things purely on the results of data measured by scientific instruments.

Although we need those careful instrumental tests, they tend to ignore the wealth of information that is qualitative rather than quantitative. This qualitative information comes via our senses: via our senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing, sensation.

The relevance of that measurable data is decided by comparing it with statistics obtained from many such measurements.

This is a sensible way of working but it’s different to the objective way of Chinese medicine, which is more interactive.

Twelve (12) pulses, not one!

Well: not actually 12 different pulses, but 12 positions to take the same pulse, six at each wrist.

Here’s how.

Start by taking your friend’s left hand in your left hand. Now place the middle finger of your right hand over the normal radial pulse position where a doctor would feel for it.

Then place the index finger of your right hand on the skin just distal (ie further down the wrist towards the wrist) to your middle finger, and your ring finger just proximal (ie just closer to your friend’s elbow) to your middle finger. Both index and ring finger will be almost adjacent to your middle finger.

Now, if you feel very carefully and if your friend has a reasonably noticeable pulse, you’ll be able to feel the pulse under each of the three fingers, though you may need to feel around a bit for it.

That’s not all. There are two different depths at which you can feel the pulse, deep and shallow.

Actually there are three depths at which many acupuncturists take the pulse, and some take it at additional positions by rolling the finger over and back and side to side of the basic position.

You may or may not be able to detect the pulse at these different depths in all three positions. If you can, see if you can feel a difference in the pulse quality at each position

With pulse diagnosis each pulse relates to a different body Organ

For example, you have a different pulse position for each of your body Organs eg Stomach, Heart, Liver, Kidney etc. and two which don’t have an official physical organ.

Pulse Qualities in Pulse Diagnosis

There are about 30 different qualities that acupuncturists aspire to learn to recognise. They include fast and slow, thin, wiry, deep, hidden, and so on, each name describing a syndrome in Chinese medicine. You can have different pulse qualities in different positions.

As there are twelve positions for the pulse (6 at each wrist) you’d think it possible to have 12 different pulse qualities at the same time.

Fortunately there are seldom more than 3 or 4 pulse qualities present so several pulse positions share the same quality.

Your acupuncturist may, depending on his/her training, also assess the strength of the pulses in relation to one another.

So what if your ‘Wood’ pulses were deficiency and your ‘Water’ pulses were strong? He might consider drawing on the body’s energy represented by the strong Water pulses to supplement the Wood energy.

How necessary is Pulse Diagnosis?

For acupuncturists and other practitioners of Chinese medicine, it’s usually very important.

With practitioners who use acupuncture according to ‘Western’ acupuncture, the pulse may be much less important. For them, the needles are inserted according to  different criteria. This is often to supplement some other form of treatment like physiotherapy or osteopathy. They might say that the pulses were nonsense or that they get good results without needing to take them.

But the pulses do provide wonderful information about the patient’s health and feedback about how the treatment is going.

For example, the pulse quality often changes within a few seconds of inserting the needle in the right place. As the right treatment progresses, the pulse qualities and strength improve.  From this the acupuncturist knows that the patient will start feeling better soon.

How useful is pulse diagnosis?

Very. I’ll say that again: very! It provides an enormous amount of information to someone who can recognise and use it.

Sometimes what the patient says contradicts the pulse qualities! If so, the acupuncturist will want to ask more questions to get at the truth. Without the pulse diagnosis he wouldn’t have known to ask more questions.  So he might have done the wrong treatment.

Does pulse diagnosis sometimes fail?

If the patient is taking medication, or just been taking strenuous exercise, pulse taking may not work. Equally, if the patient is under the influence of social drugs it may not reveal much.

You can’t easily take the pulse if the patient’s wrist is all bandaged up or in a plaster cast, say after surgery. (You can instead take it at the ankle and some other places, but it’s not so easy.)

Some patients have arteries that travel on the thumb side of the radial bone so you can’t feel the pulse in the normal position.

Sometimes a patient’s pulses are small – itself a pointer to their health, of course. That makes them hard to take.

Some patients have lost an arm or are disabled in some way so their pulses can’t be taken.

Pulse Diagnosis is only part of the picture

Normally, your acupuncturist would also talk to you to find out how you are. Then he might look at your tongue, examine and palpate where you have pain or discomfort, and so on.

Each of these adds information. So does how you smell, the sound of your voice, the colour and texture of your skin and the sort of emotions you have.

All help, but pulse reading can often cut right through much of this to point directly at how to treat you.

With Pulse Diagnosis what do different Pulse Qualities mean?

For instance, a pulse that is –

  • Wiry usually indicates pain or tension
  • Slow can mean low energy or cold
  • Fast can mean fever, excitement, a condition of heat, but also a condition of Empty Heat
  • Floating can mean you have caught some kind of recent acute disease. Depending on other factors it could instead suggest Yin deficiency
  • Slippery means you have Dampness or Phlegm, or may not be digesting food properly (it’s called Retention of Food). It can also mean you are pregnant!
  • Empty often feels quite strong but on deeper pressure it disappears. It means Qi deficiency.

Does the Pulse quality apply only to the pulse being taken?

It may and it may not. Most suggest general conditions of the body, but can point to a particular condition related to the Organ in question.

What if a slippery pulse were felt only over the Earth position, the middle position? This might suggest Retention of Food or Phlegm: not that you were pregnant, unless backed up by other evidence.

Other kinds of Pulse-taking?

Yes! Several.

Korean Hand acupuncture uses the pulse at your wrist in comparison with a pulse in your neck.

Ear acupuncturists using Dr Paul Nogier’s system feel your radial pulse when treating acupuncture points in your ear.

The Japanese way of taking your pulse doesn’t take so much notice of actual pulse qualities as of the pulse strength in each position in relation to the pulse strength in other positions.

Another system measures the pulse at five different depths. With this system each healthy pulse lies at a certain depth, different from the other healthy pulses. If a pulse is felt mainly at the ‘wrong’ depth, it suggests the energy represented by the pulse is compromised.

These differences reflect how Chinese pulse diagnosis and Chinese medicine developed as they spread round the world. Often the different systems represent modern understanding of ancient experience.

Theory behind Chinese medicine

If you would like to know more about the theory behind Chinese medicine, there’s lots about it on this site.

I’ve written several books which are intended to show how, if you can set aside the usual way of thinking taught in the West, Chinese medicine can be applied to real health situations we all face.

For example, my book – listed below – on ‘Qi Stagnation’ explains what happens when you are stressed. With this you probably have a tight or even wiry pulse. The book shows what you can do about it before you need to visit a doctor – or even an acupuncturist.

On this site, if you wonder where to start, try this page on theory.

Jonathan Brand colours

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