Tongue Anatomy and Tongue Problems

Tongue Anatomy

The tongue is a muscular organ in the mouth that is completely covered by a mucous membrane.  It occupies most of the oral cavity and oropharynx (middle part of the throat which includes the tongue’s base, tonsils, soft palate, and walls of the pharynx).  Tiny bumps known as papillae arise on it giving a rough texture. There are also thousands of taste buds covering the papillae. These taste buds are nerve like cells that are connected to the nerves radiating to the brain.

It is attached to the mouth by mess of mucous membrane and hard tissue. The connection that holds down the tongue is known as frenum. At the back, it is attached to hyoid bone. The tongue plays a prominent role in taste, and also assists in mastication (chewing), deglutition (swallowing) and articulation (speech).

The four basic tastes are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. There is also a fifth taste, known as umami, described as savory or meaty taste. It is a taste of glutamate (present in ripe tomato). The tongue has many nerves which help in detecting and transmitting taste signals to the brain.

Tongue Problems – Overview

Tongue problems include a change in the tongue’s appearance looks, pain or swelling. There are several reasons for variations in its appearance and function.

Change in the color is caused by eating or drinking something that can stain your tongue like candies or soft drinks.  These color changes may sometimes be alarming. Some stains will wear off in sometime, however few hard stains remain for prolonged periods.

An accumulated mass of bacteria and food debris on the tongue will make it appear thick or fuzzy. Usually, these problems will subside if the  surface is brushed properly using a soft-bristled brush. In case the tongue problem is due to local irritation, from tobacco use, eliminating the cause for irritation can help in clearing the problem. Home treatments work for these mild conditions.

Other general causes:

  • Deep fissures (grooves) on the tongue. Though these are common, food particles will get stuck in these grooves causing tenderness and inflammation.
  • Lack of some essential vitamins and minerals in the diet, particularly B vitamins
  • Injuries while biting, chewing, piercing or burning
  • Fungal infections that produce white patches on the tongue and inside the mouth

Rare causes include:

  • Severe allergic reaction that causes the tongue swelling
  • Oral cancer that causes sores or long lasting numbness feeling

Common problems include:

  • Inflammation and redness of the tongue (glossitis)
  • Smooth tongue, where the papillae (rough surfaces) shrink or disappear, making the tongue appear thin, shiny or bald. Without papillae, the tongue’s sensitivity to hot and spicy foods increases.
  • Other changes in tongue surface like hairy (looks like as if it has grown hair), furry (develops white fur) or geographic (looks like a road map).
  • Changes in color such as black, raspberry or strawberry colored.