The surprising complexity of tongue anatomy and its multiple functions (2023)

The tongue is a movable muscular organ that is located inside the mouth and partially extends into the upper part of the throat. The anatomy of the tongue is complex; involves the interweaving of muscles, nerves, and blood supply.

This article will explain the details of the anatomy of the tongue and how each part contributes to its movements and functions such as eating, tasting, swallowing, speaking and even breathing. It will describe what a "normal" tongue should look like and what signs might indicate a problem with your tongue.

The surprising complexity of tongue anatomy and its multiple functions (1)


The tongue is a mass of muscles that can be divided into different parts based on their landmarks. This differentiation is useful for connecting your structure to specific unique functions. Lumps on the tongue are calledpapillae(from a Latin root meaning "nipple") and vary in shape and location and are associated with the taste buds. Muscles in and around the tongue control its movement.

The five language areas

Looking at the surface of the tongue, it is possible to divide it into five general parts. This is important because different parts of the tongue can be supported by different nerves and blood vessels.

One of the most important areas of the tongue is the central or terminal sulcus, located approximately two-thirds above the tip of the tongue. The tongue can be divided into right and left halves by the midline sulcus; Just below the surface of the sulcus is the fibrous lingual septum. The underside of the tongue is covered with a thin, transparent mucous membrane through which the underlying veins can be seen.

o lingualbridleIt is a large median fold of mucosa that passes from the side of the tongue from the gingiva (or gingiva) to the undersurface of the tongue. The frenulum connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth while allowing the tip to move freely. It is notable that the submandibularSalivary glandIt has a duct that opens under the tongue, through which saliva passes into the mouth.

Visible parts of the tongue include:

  • Source:This is most often defined as the posterior third of the tongue. It is located at the bottom of the mouth and near the throat and is relatively fixed in place. is attached toiodinebone and mandible (lower jaw). It is very close to two muscles: thegenius ideaymy ideamuscles.
  • Body:The rest of the tongue, particularly the anterior two-thirds that lie in front of the sulcus. It is extremely mobile and fulfills multiple functions.
  • Appendix:This is the tip of the tongue, the pointed portion at the front of the mouth. It is also extremely mobile.
  • Behind:This is the backward curved top surface. It has a V-shaped groove called the terminal groove.
  • bottom surface:Underneath the tongue is this last resource, important for the visualization of the veins that allow the rapid absorption of specific medications.

types of papillae

The most front surface of the tongue is covered with numerous small bumps called papillae. These can have different shapes, sizes and functions. Many are associated with the taste buds, but some may have other purposes. The back of the tongue has no papillae, but the underlying lymphatic tissue can give it a jagged, cobblestone appearance. Consider these general findings about papillae:

  • Cherish your nipples:These large, flat bumps are right in front of the sulcus terminalus, located about two-thirds of the way back on the surface of the tongue. They are surrounded by deep pits, into which the ducts of the fluid-producing glands open, and their walls are lined with taste buds.
  • Folate papillae:Although underdeveloped in humans, these small folds of the tongue's mucosal surface lie on the sides. They also have taste receptors located on the taste buds.
  • Filiform papillae:Situated in V-shaped rows parallel to the sulcus terminalis, these bumps are elongated and numerous. They contain nerve endings that are sensitive to touch. Scaly, threadlike and pinkish-gray in appearance, they can make the tongue of some animals (such as cats) especially rough. At the tip of the tongue, these papillae lie more transversely (arranged transversely).
  • fungiform papillae:Scattered between the filiform papillae are these mushroom-shaped spots that may be pink or red in color. They are most commonly found along the tip or sides of the tongue. Many contain taste receptors on the taste buds.


The tongue can feel like a big muscle mass. In fact, it is made up of many interlocking muscles, some within what would be recognized as the tongue itself and others that are close by and control its complex movements. These various muscles are grouped into intrinsic muscles (those that lie entirely within the tongue and affect shape) and extrinsic muscles (those that originate outside the tongue, attach to it and surrounding bones, and affect its position).

(Video) Tongue Anatomy

The muscles of the tongue, with major actions as noted, include intrinsic muscles and extrinsic muscles.

Intrinsic muscles:

  • Upper Longitudinals:Curve the tip and sides of the tongue upwards and shorten the tongue.
  • Lower longitudinal:Curve the tip of the tongue downwards and shorten the tongue.
  • Transversal:Narrows and lengthens the tongue, increasing its height and making it stick out (pop out)
  • Vertical:Flattens and widens the tongue inside the mouth, causing it to protrude or push against the front teeth.

Extrinsic muscles:

  • genioglossus:It is a large, fan-shaped muscle that contributes most of the volume to the tongue. Lower the tongue and you can push it forward to stick out or even move it from side to side.
  • Hiogloso:A thin, four-sided muscle that depresses the tongue and pushes it into the mouth.
  • Styloglossus:Another small, short muscle with fibers that intertwine with the hyoglossus muscle. You can retract your tongue and lift it up to create a channel for swallowing a piece of food.
  • palatoglose:More part of the soft palate than the tongue itself, this muscle works to lift the back of the tongue.


All tongue muscles are innervated by thehypoglossal nerve(also known as cranial nerve XII), with the exception of the palatoglossus muscle, which is innervated by a branch of the pharyngeal plexus.

Sensation, including touch and temperature, of the anterior two-thirds of the surface of the tongue is supplied by the lingual nerve (a branch of thetrigeminal nerve).

Taste is a special sensation and comes from the chorda tympani nerve, which branches off from theNervo facial.

The posterior third of the tongue receives its general and special sensory innervation from a branch of theglossopharyngeal nerve. Just in front of the epiglottis is a small piece of the tongue that receives its special sensation from the internal laryngeal nerve, a branch of the internal laryngeal nerve.vagus nerve.

blood supply

The lingual arteries are derived from the lingual artery, which arises from theexternal carotid artery. Venous drainage includes the dorsal lingual vein and the deep lingual veins, emptying into the internal jugular vein. Veins under the tongue may be dilated and tortuous (varicose veins) in older people, but they do not bleed and this change is not clinically significant.


The tongue is a mass of muscles covered by a mucous membrane that is important for the sense of taste. In addition to its obvious role in eating (manipulating food into a bolus that can be safely passed down the throat when swallowing), it also makes a vital contribution to speech and can even affect breathing, especially during sleep.


Consider how the tongue helps a person to eat andSwallowliquids. After the teeth bite down with the help of the powerful jaw muscles, this food must be broken into smaller pieces before it can be safely swallowed. The tongue actively moves food within the mouth, positioning it for further degradation by the teeth. The food mixes with the saliva and eventually becomes a manageable chunk called a bolus that can travel down the pharynx before being swallowed and down the esophagus into the stomach. The tongue can also help with oral cleaning, preventing food from having prolonged contact with the teeth.

The tongue helps to identify what can be appetizing with thesense of tasteas detected by the taste buds. Basic taste sensations include:

(Video) Muscles of the tongue (anatomy)

  • Candy
  • salad
  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Salad (umami)

While different regions of the tongue may be more sensitive to specific tastes, they are not as regionally distinct as previously believed.


The tongue is also the main contributor to speech. It is not possible to form words and speak without thecorrect tongue placement. This depends on the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles mentioned above that change the shape and position of the tongue. This helps articulate sounds properly. Tongue dysfunction can lead to severe speech impediment.


If the tongue is too far back in the throat, it can affect breathing. This is more likely to occur when there is mouth breathing. With normal nasal breathing, the mouth is held closed and the lower jaw is held in a more forward position as the teeth come together. This reduces the chance that the tongue will obstruct the airway. During sleep, the movement of the tongue that occurs when breathing through the mouth can cause problems such as snoring andobstructive sleep apnea. Weight gain can increase the size of the tongue and make it look worse.

other roles

The tongue has other important functions. It can protect the body with a gag reflex, preventing unpleasant and even poisonous substances from being consumed. If the back of the tongue is touched, there can be a strong muscle contraction of the throat, closing it.

In addition, the tongue allows for a rapid absorption pathway for medications. Specifically, nitroglycerin is used to dilate the blood vessels in the heart when severe chest pain occurs. With a pill or spray applied under the tongue, the drug dissolves quickly and enters the veins in less than 1 minute.

language disorders

There are several conditions that can be associated with the tongue, usually affecting the ability to swallow or speak normally. Some are present from birth and others can develop from infection or exposure to cancer-causing substances. Consider these associated conditions that affect the tongue:


As noted above, the lingual frenulum (from the Latin word meaning "flange") is a small fold of mucous membrane that connects the middle of the lower surface of the tongue to the floor of the mouth. If it is too short, often from birth, the tongue may be abnormally retracted into the lower jaw.

This inferior position leads to a condition that is known colloquially as being "tongue tied.” This can rarely be controlled (or simply ignored), especially if it's on the back of the tongue and often goes untreated. It can be recognized with swallowing problems in early childhood and speech problems in school age, as the short frenulum can interfere with tongue movements and function.

Cutting the frenulum is a simple surgery and thatfrenulectomyBabies may need to release their tongue for normal speech development.

Genioglossus muscle paralysis

When this muscle is paralyzed, the tongue falls back, which can obstruct the airway and increase the risk of choking. Total relaxation of the tongue occurs during general anesthesia. Therefore, such displacement of the tongue should be avoided to avoid airway blockage. This is usually done by inserting a temporary breathing tube during surgery.

hypoglossal nerve injury

Trauma to the lower jaw (mandible) can cause a fracture that damages the hypoglossal nerve, resulting in paralysis and eventually shrinking of one side of the tongue. After injury, the tongue deviates to the paralyzed side when it protrudes.

(Video) Dr. Pratheepa’s tutorial- Tongue

Carcinoma lingual

Cancer, or carcinoma, can affect the tongue. This is most likely due to human papillomavirus (HPV) infections or tobacco use, including chewing or smoking.The back of the tongue has lymphatic drainage which can cause aggressive cancers to metastasize to the upper deep cervical lymph nodes on either side of the neck.tongue cancerit may require surgical treatment, radiotherapy and even chemotherapy if it is metastatic.

thyroglossal duct cyst

Rarely, there may be a cystic remnant of the thyroglossal duct at the root of the tongue. Most of these cysts are located near the body of the hyoid bone, resulting in a painless swelling in the midline of the neck. You can connect with afistulato the surface of the skin, leading to a non-healing sore (called a thyroglossal fistula) in the neck. Surgery may be needed to resolve the problem.

aberrant thyroid gland

The thyroid gland normally descends into the embryo along the thyroglossal duct. In some cases, remnants of the thyroid gland may remain. These can be found at the root of the tongue or even in the neck. In some cases, it can be treated with radioactive iodine, and long-term thyroid replacement is needed for post-surgical hypothyroidism.

Other conditions

There are some other conditions that can be associated with the tongue, such as:

  • Candidiasis:A yeast infection commonly known as candidiasis is caused byCandida albicansIt can cause a white plaque on the mucous lining of the tongue and mouth. It occurs more among the immunocompromised, especially among the young and the elderly.
  • hairy tongue syndrome:The tongue may appear white ornegrodue to overgrowth of papillae on the surface of the tongue. a thoroughgratedYou can clean up the debris and resolve the unpleasant appearance and associated odor.
  • macroglosia:Literally a big tongue, this condition can affect the ability to swallow or breathe normally. It can occur in the setting of Down syndrome, weight gain or hypothyroidism.
  • geographic language:An irregular appearance on the surface of the tongue with colored grooves and spots that migrate over time. Although harmless, it may initially seem worrisome.
  • burning mouth syndrome: As it turns out, the symptoms can be unpleasant and the causes can occasionally be serious.
  • Sleep apnea:The size and position of the tongue can increase the risk of sleep apnea due to obstruction of airflow in the throat.

If you are concerned about a condition that affects your tongue, start by talking to a relevant primary care provider, dentist or specialist doctor. In some cases, additional tests may be needed to assess the condition.


As a general rule, the tongue does not require many tests to assess its health and function. In addition to a visual assessment by a physician or dentist, further evaluation may require specialist consultation. It could be an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, a neurologist, or even a speech therapist. If indicated, tests may include:

  • Computed Tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Biopsy
  • taste discrimination test

Treatments may depend on the underlying nature of any identified abnormalities. Optimizing tongue function may require surgery, specialized exercises (includingmyofunctional therapy) or other inventions.

Common questions

  • What color is a healthy tongue?


    A healthy tongue is pink, although the specific shade of pink varies from person to person.

  • What causes loss of taste?

    Certain medications, as well as cancer treatments, can cause a temporary inability to taste things. Other possible causes include problems with the salivary glands, dry mouth and COVID-19 infection.

  • How do you clean your tongue?

    (Video) Muscles of Tongue | Super Easy!

    You can clean your tongue with your toothbrush while brushing your teeth. Tongue scraping devices are also available from pharmacies.


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