The Mystery of Pulse Diagnosis for Beginners and Interested Patients

DSCN4623 copyAs an Acupuncturist I have the seemingly mystical (even to me) talent of pulse reading. There is just so much to learn and differentiate and notice.

Western Medicine finds their marker in the speed of a pulse which puts disease in the below 60 beats per minute (unless you are an athlete) or above 80 beats per minute for an adult. Acupuncturists and Chinese Herbalists are after a lot more information.

In Chinese Medicine we use a three finger wide set up on adults (fewer fingers on tinier people) and check both wrists not just one. The two sides reveal a total of 12 pulses, a pulse quality, pulse strength, pulse width and a glimpse into theShen or spiritual/esoteric health of a person. Now the line up of which organs are represented by which pulses differs in different practices. Today I’m going to speak exclusively about Japanese Style Acupuncture though I dabble when appropriate into Chinese Style Acupuncture and very often contemplate both systems when making my diagnosis.

Right Versus Left

The right six pulses monitor the overall qi of the body. The left six pulses monitor the fluids of the body. A noted difference between the two sides of the pulse suggests that either the qi or the blood is deficient.

Organ Pulses

Right Side:

Starting with the pointer finger up on the wrist crease on the thumb side of the  hand you can feel the Lung and Large Intestine Pulses. The Large Intestine pulse will be the most superficial pulse as you go deeper into the middle and deep pulse you will run into the Lung pulse.

If your three fingers are touching (side by side) the middle finger will rest on the Stomach and Spleen pulses. The Stomach pulse will be the most superficial pulse as you go deeper into the middle and deep pulse you will run into the Spleen pulse.

The placement of the ring finger will reveal the Triple Burner or Pericardium pulse. These two organs that only exist in Chinese Medicine are used very rarely in treatments. In Chinese Style Acupuncture this third pulse on the right side would represent the Kidney Qi and Yang.

Left Side:

Pointer finger would rest on the Heart and Small Intestine Pulses. The Small Intestine pulse will be the most superficial pulse as you go deeper into the middle and deep pulse you will run into the Heart pulse.

Middle finger would rest on Liver and Gall Bladder pulse. The Gall Bladder pulse will be the most superficial pulse as you go deeper into the middle and deep pulse you will run into the Liver pulse.

Ring finger will rest on Kidney and Bladder pulse. The Bladder pulse will be the most superficial pulse as you go deeper into the middle and deep pulse you will run into the Kidney pulse.


When learning the pulse we are taught to recognize different widths relative to all the pulses we feel. Some pulses feel very wide (think fettuccine), some pulse feel of normal width (think spaghetti), some just feel way too thin (think angel hair). Width of a pulse is suggestive of how much blood is moving through the vessels. If you were to feel a woman’s pulse directly after giving birth when she had lost blood the width would be much thinner than before she went into labor. Same thing with someone donating blood.



We are always looking for a robust strong pulse that is not too forceful. Too much heat can be suggestive of pathological heat (or simply caffeine in the body). Something making the body work too hard. Or a pulse can be weak sometimes to the point that a pulse is hard to find. This weakness is usually indicative of poor digestive health, poor sleep and low energy all caused by Qi deficiency.


There are three levels we check in each pulse. Superficial-which represents the exterior portion of the body, think skin, pores and outside the muscle layer. Middle-which represents the metabolic functioning of each organ. Deep-which suggests how much reserves each organ has. Just how strong and healthy it is. A healthy pulse will exist in all three depths but will be strongest in one area. The placement of that strongest pulse will ideally change through the calendar year. In the middle of Janaury it is very common (and healthy) for pulses to burrow down close to the bone. This last weekend of hot weather should have made pulses rise to the surface (heat rises and always tries to escape).


Pulse qualities are the hardest to learn and the weirdest to talk about. A few of the standard pulse qualities would include wiry, slippery, choppy, tight, hurried, floating, full, empty, tied to the bone. A wiry pulse, which is very common, is suggestive of a person being on edge or stressed out. Imagine placing your finger on a guitar string. It is definite, sharp and strung as tightly as possible. When I feel a wiry pulse I ask about stress and irritability and if they say there isn’t any I usually don’t believe them.


There is no easy way to explain how to feel Shen in someone’s pulse. How do you describe how some people look healthy and some people look really sick? Or how people can actually sound healthy on the phone? We have Shen in our face, our eyes, our voice and definitely in our pulse. You could think of it as brightness, clearness, sturdiness. We want it in the pulse.

Fun Pulse Reading Tricks:

  • A weak Heart pulse usually means someone isn’t sleeping well or they are dreaming.
  • A strong full Lung pulse with everything else normal usually means someone is about to get sick or has been exposed to something their body is fighting off.
  • A super weak Spleen pulse on someone who normally has a good Spleen pulse usually means someone skipped a meal and is starving.
  • A huge Stomach pulse at a 1:00pm appointment usually means someone is digesting lunch.

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