Special Senses Tongue

Special senses- Tongue

Special senses tongue, often overlooked and underappreciated, is a marvel of biological engineering. This muscular organ, nestled within our mouths, is a powerhouse of functionality. It aids in essential tasks such as speaking, eating, and tasting, making it a vital component of our daily lives. However, the tongue is more than just a functional organ; it’s a complex structure with a unique physiology and an array of potential disorders. In this article we will see its structure, function, and common disorders.

Structure of tongue

special senses tongue
special senses tongue source wikimedia

Parts of the Tongue: The tongue is divided into three parts: the tip (or apex), body, and base. The apex is located directly behind the incisor teeth and is the mobile part of the tongue. The body follows the apex, with a rough superior and smooth inferior surface.

  • Tip (or Apex) of the Tongue: The apex of the tongue is the thin and narrow part located directly behind the incisor teeth. It is the most mobile part of the tongue and makes contact with the teeth. This part of the tongue is crucial for articulation and pronunciation.
  • Body of the Tongue: The body of the tongue follows the apex and has a rough superior (dorsal) surface and a smooth inferior (ventral) surface. The superior surface is home to three types of lingual papillae and is populated with taste buds, giving it a rough texture. The inferior surface is attached to the floor of the oral cavity by the lingual frenulum. The body of the tongue contains both extrinsic and intrinsic muscles, which allow the tongue to change its shape and position, aiding in speech and swallowing.
  • Base of the Tongue: The base of the tongue refers to the postsulcal part that forms the ventral wall of the oropharynx. The root of the tongue, a part of the presulcal tongue, is attached to the floor of the oral cavity. The base of the tongue is home to the lingual tonsils.

The tongue is made up of three elements;

  • Epithelium: The epithelium comprises papillae and taste buds. The taste buds help to sense taste. They are lined by squamous epithelial tissue and have a broad bottom. The taste cells are slender, rod-shaped with a nucleus in the center. The free surface comprises short taste hair. The taste cells help in detecting taste, which dissolves in saliva for proper sensation.
  • Muscles: The tongue muscles are voluntary and contain cross-striated muscular fibers. These muscles allow the tongue to move in various directions and change its shape, aiding in speech and swallowing.
  • Glands: The tongue consists of small and scattered glands. These glands are of three types: Mucous Glands, Serous Glands, and Lymph Nodes. The lymph nodes are very prominent at the posterior part of the tongue and are known as lingual tonsils.
  • Nerve Supply: The glossopharyngeal nerve and the chorda tympanic branch of the facial nerve are responsible for taste sensation. The sensations of pain, touch, temperature are carried by the trigeminal nerve.
  • Salivary Glands: Salivary glands comprise three pairs: Parotid, Submaxillary, and Sublingual. These glands secrete saliva, which keeps the mouth moist and aids in digestion.

Functions of tongue

  • Mastication (Chewing): The tongue helps in chewing by moving food around the mouth. It manipulates food for proper grinding by the teeth.
  • Deglutition (Swallowing): The tongue plays a crucial role in swallowing. It helps in pushing the food towards the back of the mouth to initiate the swallowing process.
  • Taste Sensation: The tongue is the primary organ of taste. It is covered by taste buds housed in numerous lingual papillae. These taste buds help in transmitting taste signals to the brain, thus helping in taste sensation. There are five basic tastes that stimulate your taste buds, including sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory).
  • Speech: The tongue is an essential organ for speech. It helps in the articulation of sounds and formation of words. Different movements and positions of the tongue are necessary to produce different speech sounds.
  • Secretion: The tongue helps in the secretion of mucous and serous fluid which keeps the mouth moist1. This moisture aids in the digestion process as it helps in the breakdown of food and also in the sensation of taste.

Tongue disorders

  • Leukoplakia: This condition is characterized by the development of white patches on the tongue. While it’s usually harmless, it can sometimes be a precursor to cancer.
  • Oral Thrush: Also known as candidiasis, oral thrush is a yeast infection that results in white, cottage cheese-like coatings on the tongue. It’s most common in infants and the elderly, especially denture wearers and those with weakened immune systems.
  • Geographic Tongue: This condition causes map-like, red, irregularly shaped patches to develop on the tongue. While it can sometimes cause mild discomfort or a burning sensation, it’s generally harmless.
  • Black Hairy Tongue: Despite its name, this condition doesn’t actually cause hair to grow on the tongue. Instead, it refers to tiny bumps on the tongue, called papillae, that have grown longer and turned black. It’s usually a harmless condition often associated with poor oral hygiene, smoking, or excessive coffee or tea drinking.
  • Burning Mouth Syndrome (BMS): BMS is a chronic condition that can cause a burning sensation on the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth. It may also be associated with mouth dryness and a change in your perception of flavor to a bitter or metallic taste.
  • Macroglossia: This is a condition where the tongue is abnormally large. Caused by a variety of factors, macroglossia can lead to difficulties with speech, eating, swallowing, and sleeping.
  • Glossitis: This is an inflammation of the tongue, causing it to swell and change color. Glossitis can also cause the tongue to have a smooth appearance.
  • Oral Cancer: While not a common condition, oral cancer can occur on the tongue, particularly on the sides and underneath. Symptoms can include a lump or sore on the tongue that doesn’t go away, pain, and difficulty swallowing.


The human tongue is a marvel of biological engineering. Its unique structure and multifaceted functions make it an indispensable organ in our daily lives. From enabling us to taste the myriad flavors of our food, assisting in speech and swallowing, to maintaining oral hygiene, the tongue plays a pivotal role. However, like any other organ, it can be susceptible to various disorders, which can impact its functionality and our overall health. Understanding the tongue’s structure, functions, and potential disorders is crucial for maintaining oral health and overall well-being.

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