If you’ve been in fifth-grade health class, you’ve probably heard that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. Which–we’ll be honest, here–isn’t exactly true. That doesn’t stop the tongue from being a fascinating muscle, though!
Your tongue may not be the strongest muscle, but it’s one of the most fascinating!
Haven’t you ever been curious about your tongue? We sure have. It’s probably why we started working in dentistry, if we’re being honest. So, let’s start at the beginning: did you know that your tongue is made of a number of muscles, just like almost every other part of your body that moves? Except, it’s built in a much different way! Your tongue is composed of eight muscles. It isn’t built for sheer moving-power so much as it’s structured for continuous, precise use.
Think about it: when was the last time your tongue got tired? Aside from an hours-long tongue-twister marathon, we’re willing to guess it’s been a while. That’s because your tongue is structured for redundancy; instead of one batch of muscle tissue–like, say, your calf–your tongue is made of a whole lot of them, all working towards the same goal. This keeps your tongue going, letting you talk, helping you chew, and allowing you to swallow effectively. Likewise, four of the eight muscles in your tongue aren’t attached to a bone. Rather, they’re all wrapped together into something called a “muscular hydrostat,” which is similar in structure to an elephant’s trunk!
Your tongue isn’t just one big unit– it’s made out of a couple notable parts. The “oral” part of the tongue, which is in the front of your mouth, helps mostly with articulation, food-control, and helping to keep your teeth clean. The other major part of your tongue–the “pharyngeal,” or posterior part–is in the back of your mouth and goes down into your throat. This is where the other four muscles in your tongue connect to the rest of your body. These muscles–the “extrinsic,” or outward-facing muscles–are responsible for the positioning, pushing out, or pulling back, of your tongue.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg!
Your tongue is home to a bunch of different, specialized structures besides its musculature. Have you heard of keratinized stratified squamous epithelium? Probably, by another name– it’s the part of your tongue that holds your taste buds! Your tongue is equipped to send messages to your brain through these structures, telling you if you’re tasting things that are bitter, salty, sour, sweet, or–here’s another fun fact–the little understood fifth flavor, “umami.”
Only recently recognized as a unique flavor, Umami is a “savory” taste, associated with the release of a unique set of tasting-chemicals in this structure. Since it doesn’t seem to play by the same rules as other flavors, it’s been the subject of intense study by scientists. Just because it isn’t well understood, though, doesn’t mean it’s unknown. If you’ve ever tasted ripe tomatoes or soy sauce, you’ve tasted Umami!
The tongue is a fascinating part of our bodies. Like any other part of the body, there’s so much more to learn about it! If you have any questions about your mouth, feel free to send us an email here. Dr. Matthews is always happy to help!