Spotlight on Anatomy is back, and today we’re talking about that oh-so-tricky bulk of muscles at the bottom of your mouth… yes that’s right, your tongue!

Tongue gray's anatomy

You may not be aware of this amazing fact, but your tongue is actually comprised of eight different muscles. Yes eight! Four of these muscles are extrinsic, meaning they extend from bone to tongue. The other four are intrinsic, meaning they are contained with the dorsum (body) of the tongue. Today we’re going to focus on the extrinsic muscles of the tongue, which you can think of as the tongue root. These muscles connect the tongue to other structures in the skull and neck.

The four extrinsic tongue root muscles are:

  • The genioglossus is a big muscle in the middle with front-to-back-ish fibers, which extends the tongue forward. It attaches to the inside of the chin (which is part of the jawbone called the mandible). It is labeled above in the Gray’s Anatomy image.
  • The hyoglossus is the other big muscle with up-to-down-ish fibers, which retracts the tongue back and down. It attaches to the hyoid bone. It is also labeled above.
  • The styloglossus is a sling-like muscle right underneath the dorsum of the tongue that retracts the tongue up and back. It attaches to a bony protrusion right underneath the ear called the styloid process. We can see it on the side closest to us in the drawing above, but it does indeed sling around and attach underneath both ears.
  • The palatoglossus is also sling-like, and curves around the space at the back of the mouth, attaching the tongue to the hard palate up above. It is not pictured above but you can read about it and see an image of it here on Wikipedia.

Before we talk about the significance of these tongue root muscles, let’s get a deeper sense of their movement capabilities. We’re going to focus on the genioglossus, hyoglossus, and styloglossus, three common culprits of tongue root tension. Try these prompts:

  • To imagine the motion of the genioglossus, trace your two index fingers from underneath your chin, back and up around the side of your jaw, and then forward along your cheeks to your lips. The genioglossus helps your tongue extend along this path.
  • To imagine the motion of the hyoglossus, trace your fingers from the side of your cheeks down back and down towards your larynx. The hyoglossus retracts the tongue in this direction.
  • To imagine the motion of the styloglossus, trace your fingers from the center of your cheeks back and up to underneath your earlobes. The styloglossus retracts the tongue up and back in this direction.

Can you feel each of these three pathways: looping to extend the tongue forward, pulling it back and down, and pulling it up and back? If you’re even just starting to get a sense of these directionalities, that’s great. Why? Because very often the genioglossus, hyoglossus, and/or styloglossus are over-managing the movement of your tongue. In other words, your tongue root muscles are doing more work than necessary. Not a great thing, because too much work is going to lead to tension, and as we all well know tension can lead to vocal fatigue. We want freedom and ease in the root of the tongue.  

We want our tongue root to be as free as possible so the rest of the tongue can do its work to articulate.

So let’s free up your tongue root! Try this exercise:

  1. Stick your tongue out of your mouth. This lengthens all three of these tongue root muscles.
  2. Leave your tongue outside of your mouth and speak or sing. You can count up to ten, recite the days of the week, sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or sing an aria. Anything will do! The goal is to articulate as clearly as you can but also leave your tongue outside of your mouth at all times. If it wants to retract back in, try not to let it. Just articulate as clearly as you can around your extended tongue. Do this for at least 15 seconds, or as long as you want. (Trick: If you’re really having trouble leaving your tongue outside of your mouth, you can use a piece of gauze to hold it out)
  3. Next, allow your tongue to come back inside your mouth and speak or sing the same thing again. Easier? For most people the answer is a resounding: YES!

Working in this way will train your tongue root muscles that they don’t need to engage nearly as much as they think they do to help you articulate. So enjoy this new knowledge and exercise, and work on this often.

PS: In the next Spotlight on Anatomy blog, we’ll discuss the four intrinsic muscles of the tongue. But as a teaser, they are: the superior longitudinal muscle, the inferior longitudinal muscle, the vertical muscle and the transverse muscle.

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