Pulse Reading In Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine

the art, science & language of acupuncture pulses

Pulse-reading positions. Flickr: sushiphotos

Pulse reading is a diagnostic tool used by acupuncturists and practitioners of Oriental medicine.

Acupuncture Pulses: Three Positions & Three Depths

Part of being an acupuncturist involves reading pulses. In both Chinese and Japanese systems of acupuncture, the pulse is "read" (i.e. felt and interpreted) at the radial artery, in three positions and at three depths. The acupuncturist uses his or her index, middle and ring fingers, placed side-by-side along the course of the artery, just above the wrist.

In total, then, there are six positions: three on the right wrist and three on the left wrist. Each of these six positions is used to gather information about one of the twelve main meridians and corresponding organ systems. There are also qualities of the pulse as a whole that are used to diagnose more general conditions within the bodymind.

Pulse Reading: Art, Science or Language?

Pulse-reading is an aspect of Oriental medicine that, for most practitioners, requires many years of practice in order to master. It requires great energetic sensitivity -- a capacity to “listen” very deeply. It is an art-form as much as it is a science. We might understand pulse reading to be something quite similar to a language, or – in terms of computer science -- an operating system. It’s a means of translating information from one medium (the client’s bodymind) to another (the practitioner’s bodymind) which depends upon the creation of specific cognitive/perceptual alignments, i.e. "rules" of the communication "game."

Read More: Taoism & Wittgenstein's Language Games

Different Systems Of Pulse Reading

What's interesting about the art/science of pulse reading is that there are quite a number of different styles or systems of reading pulses, that are currently in use: Various schools of Japanese and Chinese medicine each have their own style of reading pulses .

The Indian Ayurvedic tradition has its yet another unique system of reading pulses; as does Tibetan medicine. In many of these systems, the pulse is taken at the radial artery. Yet others read the pulses in different and/or additional places, for instance at the ankles or the occiput or the carotid artery. Even among those that read the pulse at the radial artery, there are differences in terms of which positions represent which organ systems.

And this begs the question: which system is “right” or “true”? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that they all are – potentially. How can this be?

Read More: TCM & Five Element Styles Of Chinese Medicine

Tuning Into The Subtle Body

There are stories of great physicians spending hours reading a single pulse – and from the information gathered, knowing things about the patient’s life (past, present & future) in such a comprehensive and detailed way as to seem truly miraculous. How is this possible, simply by tuning into the sensations beneath one’s fingertips, at six small positions along a single artery? Or perhaps there’s more than this that’s actually going on?

My current best-guess around this is that part of what’s being “read” is the patient’s entire subtle body.

When the physician is close enough to be placing her/his fingers on the patient’s wrists, they’re clearly inside of (or at least contiguous with) the patient’s subtle body – allowing for fairly easy and direct intuitional/psychic access to all the information stored there-within. So placing fingertips on the wrists of the patient functions, in this interpretation, largely as a ritual container for a much deeper process.

Modesty As The Mother Of Invention

Part of the history and origin of pulse-taking, as I understand it, had to do with notions of propriety around male physicians touching female patients. Palpation of any sort was strictly limited to the territory distal to the elbows and the knees. This was a case, in other words, of necessity being the mother of invention. Since it wasn’t socially acceptable for doctors to palpate women’s chests or abdomens, i.e. to access tactile information about the organ systems in a more direct way, they were forced to cultivate the capacity to intuit this information via the radial artery.

The Therapeutic Dance

We could say, then, that the various systems of pulse reading evolved as "shared languages" – as ways of perceiving and speaking that were effective, in the sense of guiding actions (viz. selection of acupuncture points) that worked to restore balance to an imbalanced bodymind, ease to a dis-eased being. To the extent that a practitioner’s perceptual capacities as a whole are well-developed, s/he will be able to tune in simultaneously to information flowing from different sources; and to consciously choose which perceptual lens should be in the foreground. And this brings us back to pulse-reading being very much of an art-form, as well as a science -- allowing for a dance between individual proclivities and shared languages, grounded always is the question: is the outcome of this therapeutic dance/ritual a healing one?


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Reninger, Elizabeth. "Pulse Reading In Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2015, thoughtco.com/pulse-reading-in-acupuncture-and-oriental-medicine-3183061. Reninger, Elizabeth. (2015, December 5). Pulse Reading In Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pulse-reading-in-acupuncture-and-oriental-medicine-3183061 Reninger, Elizabeth. "Pulse Reading In Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pulse-reading-in-acupuncture-and-oriental-medicine-3183061 (accessed November 23, 2017).