When Your Tongue Needs A Tuneup

12:00 minutes

Credit: Shutterstock

You’ve probably heard the old tale that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. Unfortunately, there’s little truth to that—and the tongue is actually composed of eight muscles, not one. But those eight muscles work in concert to accomplish amazing feats.

[Let’s myth-bust your fitness routine.]

Heidi Bell, an assistant professor of human performance studies at Wichita State University, studies how those muscles interact, and how the tongue’s performance decreases as we age. The weakening of the tongue can result in more frequent choking in older adults when the tongue fails to block the airway during swallowing. But Bell says simple exercise seems to be an effective way to keep the tongue toned.

Segment Guests

Heidi Bell

Heidi Bell is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Performance Studies at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you today from the studios of KMUW in Wichita, Kansas. And later in the hour, we’re going to talk with famed SETI astronomer, Jill Tarter about a life spent searching for a signal from the cosmos.

But first, when you think of building muscle, like, you think about lifting weights, doing squats, strengthening your core. But what I’m guessing you don’t think about working out is your tongue. Yes, your tongue. Just like other muscles in the body, it too, weakens with age, and can be impaired by Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, or strokes. And that can cause choking problems in older adults.

But there may be ways to strengthen this all important bundle of muscle without doing reps, or sets. And my next guest is a tongue expert. She joins us at KMUW, here in Wichita. Heidi Bell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Performance Studies at Wichita State University. Welcome to Science Friday.

HEIDI BELL: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

IRA FLATOW: I have never interviewed a tongue expert before.

HEIDI BELL: Well I never thought I’d be one.

IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHING) Is that right? What did– how did you get into this business?

HEIDI BELL: Well my undergrad and masters were both in Exercise Science. I was a two-sport athlete, and enjoyed being physically active. And when I came across, during my doctorate, looking at the tongue and realized there were eight muscles, that atrophy just like the [? scoliosis ?] system, like you’d mentioned, and quickly recognized that dysphasia and sleep apnea, within that particular science, they do not address it on the front end to try to prevent it, most of the time. Instead they try to approach it from the back end, after someone already is presented with it. And recognizing within the skeletal system, we can try to attenuate that loss and atrophy. Why can’t we do that in the tongue?

IRA FLATOW: Can, you mean– you mentioned that there were eight, a bundle of eight muscles. We think of one muscle, but it’s eight muscles.

HEIDI BELL: Correct. There’s eight muscles, very unique structure. So four of those muscles actually have an origin on a bony structure, but their insertion is just into the tongue structure itself, connecting to connective tissue. And then the other four muscles of the tongue, which are known as intrinsic muscles, they do not have any bony structure which they attached to. Instead both the origin and insertion are within the tongue, connecting to that connective tissue.

In skeletal muscles, we always see that the origin and insertion– so if you’re thinking about your biceps and your quadriceps– both the origin and insertion attached to a bone.

IRA FLATOW: I want to ask our listeners if they’ve had any tongue problems, choking problems, whatever, and ask them to call in. Our number 844-724-8255. 844-SCITALK. Aside from doing tricks like rolling or folding your tongue, or teasing some persistent bit of food stuck in your teeth, what is, you know– and speech, right? What is the role of the tongue in your mouth?

HEIDI BELL: A really important role that most people don’t even think about, is to not only help chew your food, but to actually swallow your food. It is an assistive aid in propelling it back. And so, if you start to lose tongue strength, at first you might notice grandma at the Thanksgiving table start to cough as she’s chewing and swallowing. It’s probably because she’s not forcing that food down in a forceful manner that she used to with her tongue. And from there, if it continues to get worse and worse, we even have to start to modify their foods to assist with that swallowing.

Another thing that a lot of people don’t think about is that the tongue assists with respiration as well. So it helps maintain an open upper airway when we need to breathe, and it also assists in keeping the upper airway closed while we’re still chewing that food before we actually begin to swallow.

IRA FLATOW: Is that why people get– they talk too much when they’re trying to eat, and they start choking on their food?

HEIDI BELL: That can happen, too. But the referencing I was talking about is actually when they’re starting to lose some strength in that tongue to actually help propel that food towards the esophagus.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, we talk about, you know, if you’re losing muscle tone on your body you can lift weights. Can you do anything for the tongue?

HEIDI BELL: So when I started to look at this line of research, they do have– there’s several different very, in my opinion, elementary activities you can do. Such as encouraging the individual to forcefully swallow, or push your tongue against your cheek, or push your tongue against a tongue depressor stick. There’s also the IOPI system, and then there’s the swallow- mo system, which have the tongue do movements against a pressure bulb to help promote tongue strength and tongue endurance.

But recognizing that the tongue does have to contract to help assist with respiration, and knowing that when we exercise your respiration increases, I started to wonder, well, could we do something on the front end, when an individual is already being physically active doing resistance training or running on the treadmill. Could they possibly be benefiting their tongue health and tongue function, as well. And some of my research has actually been able to show that people who do exercise, maintain healthier tongue muscle performance across age.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you mean they exercise the regular parts of their body, and the tongue muscles also benefit.

HEIDI BELL: Exactly. We still don’t know why. Speculation is that it’s due to that respiratory pattern, but that’s still on the line to be answered.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Ellen, who’s in– is it Crawfordville, Florida, Ellen?


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

ELLEN: Just south of Tallahassee. I was wondering if– I have some problems with, like, swallowing, and choking, eating– if that could be related to fibromyalgia, which I was diagnosed with a few years back.

HEIDI BELL: Well I think that there’s a neurological aspect there that could impact that. I don’t specialize in the fibromyalgia area, but knowing that tongue loss performance, it’s not only about tongue strength or tongue endurance. There are neurological aspects that also impact the tongue’s ability to function the way it should. So if you noticed that that swallowing issue became a problem at the same time that fibromyalgia, there may be a connection there. But that would definitely be something for the medical specialist that you are working with.

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand that you have invented a special mouthpiece.

HEIDI BELL: Yes, we are working on a mouthpiece. I’m working on that with doctors Jeremy Patterson and Ryan Amick. And so, part of it is to kind of answer that question. Along with the exercising, is that really a breathing mechanism that impacts that tongue loss of performance when an individual is exercising. And besides doing EMG, where you actually stick needles in the tongue, which most people aren’t going to–


HEIDI BELL: –be volunteering for.

IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHING) No thank you.

HEIDI BELL: We looked at other ways in order to assess not only muscle fiber activation, but tongue muscle movement, where it’s placed in the tongue. And so we’ve been working on a mouthpiece that will actually be affixed to the upper palate, so that your tongue can still move freely, and we can start to grab some of those measures that will help us answer some more questions.

And the nice thing is, that mouthpiece will not only answer my research questions, but I think will benefit quite a few different medical and clinical aspects, as well as industry.

IRA FLATOW: Could singing help you strengthen your tongue?

HEIDI BELL: That’s actually one of the studies that we’re in the process of collecting data on.

IRA FLATOW: You suspect though, it might somehow.

HEIDI BELL: Yes. The preliminary data that we have shows that, in younger adults, it did not make a significant difference. But we did see that there were differences in the older adults, compared to those that did and did not sing. But again, we’re collecting additional data to really capture a bigger picture.

IRA FLATOW: You know, the tongue and the more we talk about it, and you think about it, because you never think about your tongue. Right?

HEIDI BELL: Most people don’t, unless you bite it.


IRA FLATOW: Why do you– why do we bite our tongue? Is it– is it because we have lost track? Because I’m thinking, what my point I was trying to make was, we move our tongue around without thinking at all about where it should be.


IRA FLATOW: And what gets screwed up that we bite it sometime?

HEIDI BELL: I think it’s just like anything else. I mean, you can be walking, we walk every day, and all of a sudden you trip over the sidewalk. You know, I think it’s just a neuromuscular response that didn’t trigger like we’re used to.

IRA FLATOW: How strong– you say it’s a bundle of muscles–

HEIDI BELL: Correct.

IRA FLATOW: –is it compared to other muscles in our body?

HEIDI BELL: Well, I know that over the past four years there’s been a huge topic on trying to debunk the statement that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. And based off of the way that that statement is presented, and the way society probably looks and perceives that particular statement, I would have to debunk it as well. Because I think most people look at, when they hear the strongest muscle, they think of that brute strength.

And when we talk about strength, there’s actually several different ways to measure strength. You have maximum strength, which is kind of that brute strength. There’s also dynamic strength where, how many times can you repeat that movement over and over? We also have elastic or power strength. So how quickly can you go through that forceful movement? And then some people would even look at muscle endurance being a sub-maximal type of muscle strength over a long duration of time.

And so when you look at, how was that statement pertaining to that individual statement when they made that. What type of strength were they looking at? And then the other piece of that is, we have to also recognize that within the body there are three different types of muscle. You have cardiac muscle, which we only see in the heart. And then you have smooth muscles, which are more of your cell membrane area. And then we have skeletal muscles.

And so when we compare other skeletal muscles, like your biceps, and your quads, again, like I earlier talked about, the origin and insertion, they have a bony structure. So they have nice leverage.

IRA FLATOW: But your tongue doesn’t have–

HEIDI BELL: But your tongue only has some bony leverage on four of them at the origin, but not in the insertion. So it’s really hard to really even compare that statement across muscles, or even across how are you measuring that strength. So it would be interesting to see the person that actually created that statement. What was their pretense behind it?

IRA FLATOW: I have to ask you, because I’ve always wondered about this, and never knew anybody who might know the answer to this question. Where does the phrase ‘tongue in cheek’ come from? You know, you’re sitting around having a beer, you know? What is, what does the tongue and cheek have to do with– what is it? You say it, like, flippant or something. Like, he’s saying “I’m telling you tongue in cheek.” Does that mean, I don’t know. What does that mean?

HEIDI BELL: I don’t know. It’s probably someone’s behavioral habit that– I have no clue with that. Yeah, I’ve heard the statement, but don’t know where it came from.

IRA FLATOW: And is it true about tongues that people, certain people– is it genetics that you can roll your tongue, or flip it over? Is that true? It runs in families or–

HEIDI BELL: There is a piece to the genetic line but, even within an immediate family, there are unique differences within each person.


HEIDI BELL: And so individuals that are able to roll or twist their tongue, it comes down to the elasticity within the connective tissue. And so you think about someone, even on their limb muscles, some people are more flexible than others.

IRA FLATOW: Heidi Bell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Performance Studies at Wichita State University. Thank you for talking about the tongue. We never get a chance to do that.

HEIDI BELL: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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