Pulse diagnosis is a diagnostic technique used in several healing systems to determine the health conditions and course of treatment for patients.
As used in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the techniques of pulse diagnosis have been developed over thousands of years, as these two systems of medicine are the world's oldest. Acupuncture , a branch of TCM, has long relied on pulse diagnosis as a main tool to determine the course of treatment. In Western medicine, every time a doctor checks the pulse of a patient and listens to the heartbeat with a stethoscope, the doctor is practicing a form of pulse diagnosis.
Pulse diagnosis is a quick, inexpensive, and non-invasive diagnostic tool. When performed by trained professionals, it can be an effective means for determining the health conditions of patients.
In conventional Western medicine, doctors check the pulse of patients by placing their hands on the wrist and by listening to the pulse at various points on the body with a stethoscope. Doctors check for abnormalities in rhythm and rate that may indicate heart problems, internal bleeding, and fever . Measuring blood pressure is essentially another pulse diagnosis, which indicates hypertension , circulatory conditions, and other problems.
In older healing systems, such as Ayurveda and TCM, doctors check the pulse just as Western doctors do, but they use a very intricate system of pulse measurements, and they rely on careful observations instead of diagnostic tools. Pulse diagnosis is considered as much an art as a science, and it takes physicians many years of training to become experts. Doctors skilled in pulse diagnosis can often find health problems with a quick touch. Some published observations have documented the effectiveness of pulse diagnosis by trained experts, comparing their diagnoses with the diagnoses with modern technology.
In Ayurvedic medicine, pulse diagnosis is called nadi parkiksha. The principle measurement of pulse is taken at the radial artery, a blood vessel that is located on the inside of the wrist. Ayurvedic doctors use three fingers to feel the pulse, and particular conditions are indicated depending on the pulse characteristics that each finger feels. Doctors note heart rate, counting how many beats occur per minute and per breathing cycle of the patient. Doctors also take deep and shallow readings of the pulse, pressing hard or gently on the artery. Ayurvedic doctors believe that the pulse can indicate how prana, or life energy, is flowing through a patient's system, and can indicate the condition of internal organs. Doctors check the pulse on both wrists, because each side of the body gives different indications.
Ayurvedic doctors may take pulse readings at other points on the body as well. These points include the brachial artery on the inside of the arm above the elbow, the carotid artery at the base of the neck, the femoral artery that travels down the inside of the leg, and pulse points at the temples, at the ankles, and on the top of the feet. Ayurvedic physicians use other diagnostic tools in conjunction with pulse analysis, including interviewing the patient and closely observing the physical characteristics of the tongue, voice, skin, eyes, appearance, urine, and stool, in addition to utilizing conventional diagnostic methods.
Pulse diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture) shares some similarities with Ayurvedic medicine. In TCM, pulse diagnosis is used to check the condition of the blood and of qi (chi), which is the invisible life energy that travels in channels (meridians) throughout the body. Using pulse diagnosis, physicians determine the condition of the internal organs, and describe conditions according to yin and yang (cold or hot, empty or full, weak or strong, etc.). Pulse diagnosis tells acupuncturists where there are problems with the flow of energy in the body.
LI SHIZ-HEN 1518–1593
Li Shiz-hen was born in 1518 in the town of Kin Zhou (var. Qizhou) along the Yangtze River in the Hubei province of China. His family was renowned for its medical expertise. At age 14, Shiz-hen elected to study the family arts of medicine and pharmacology. As a medical student he distinguished himself with his scholarly writings.
Shiz-hen served as a pharmacist for the Ming Dynasty. His reputation was such that he was assigned to an official position at the Imperial Academy of Medicine in Peking. There he earned the respect of the prince of China. Between 1552 and 1578, with the express permission of the Imperial family, Shiz-hen engaged himself in studying the priceless ancient Chinese writings on medicinals, after which he undertook the massive task of reorganizing and classifying all of the information that was at his disposal. Shiz-hen incorporated information that he learned from his own family along with the knowledge from the treasured ancient writings collected by the Chinese monarchs for centuries. The result of his decades long project was a massive encyclopedic text, called the Bencao gangmu. Shiz-hen's work comprised 52 volumes, including all existing knowledge of botanicals and medicine that was available at the time. The books contained thousands of medical prescriptions and information on over 1,000 herbs. He presented the manuscript to the scholar Wang Shiz-hen, who wrote an introduction for the book.
Shiz-hen's voluminous work, also known as the Great Herbal, was the greatest written contribution from the Far East during the sixteenth century. In 1596, three years after Shiz-hen's death, the Emperor Shen Tsun declared the book to be the official medical reference of China.
In TCM, there are several pulse diagnosis techniques, but the one most commonly used is checking the radial arteries on each wrist. Each wrist has six positions that are checked, and the 12 positions on both wrists correspond to the 12 internal organs. At each position, there are three depths that are checked. In all, the pulse can have 36 different qualities. Some of the observations noted during pulse diagnosis include the position of the artery, whether it is deep or shallow, the hardness or softness of the artery, the diameter of the blood vessel, the rate and strength of the pulse, and the rhythm of the heartbeat. TCM practitioners may take the pulse at other points on the body, frequently including the carotid artery at the base of the neck.
In TCM and acupuncture, pulse diagnosis is used in conjunction with other diagnostic techniques. TCM doctors closely interview patients, and pay attention to seeing, hearing, and smelling the patient. TCM practitioners also observe the tongue, and palpate (touch) parts of the body to check for swelling, pain , temperature, moisture, and other characteristics. TCM practitioners may also use conventional diagnostic techniques such as blood tests, scans, and others.
Pulse diagnosis should be performed on patients under normal conditions to insure accuracy. The pulse should not be diagnosed after exercise , physical exertion, bathing, massage, sex, eating or drinking, while the patient is very hungry, or in a room where the temperature is very hot or cold.
Pulse diagnosis can be a quick and inexpensive means of diagnosis, but it should be performed by a trained specialist to be most effective. Pulse diagnosis is best used in conjunction with other diagnostic techniques, including conventional ones. For patients with severe, chronic, or undetermined conditions, getting more than one diagnosis or opinion is recommended.
Training & certification
Pulse diagnosis is a technique that requires careful training by specialists. Pulse diagnosis is taught at schools that teach Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and acupuncture.
Lad, Dr. Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Wisconsin: Lotus Press, 1984.
Williams, Tom, Ph.D. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Chinese Medicine. Rockport, MA: Element, 1996.
American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. 433 Front St., Catasaugua, PA 18032. (610) 266-1433.
Ayurvedic Institute of Albuquerque. P.O. Box 23445, Albuquerque, NM 87192. (505) 291-9698.