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Anatomical Directional Terms Description with Examples

Anatomical directional terms are often used in medical and healthcare studies, which describe the positions of body parts or structures relative to other body parts or locations in the body. These directional terms are important in the hospital and clinical settings as well, as they are universally accepted language of anatomy.

You may have difficulty learning or understanding these directional terminologies at first. However, as you will use and, often, hear these terms in your anatomy class, it becomes a second language to you and you’ll be able to use them with ease.

Most of the directional terms are opposing pairs, like north and south or east and west. Let’s describe these terms and give examples for each.

Anterior and posterior
** To easily remember these terms, imagine dividing the body or a body part into front and back parts.

Anterior

Anterior means in front, at the front, or toward the front (of the body or a body part).
Anterior is also called ventral.

Examples using “anterior”:

1. The trachea is anterior to the esophagus.
2. The sternum (breastbone) is anterior to the vertebrae (spine).
3. The patella (kneecap) is anterior to the knee joint.
4. The lips are anterior to the oral cavity.
5. The nose is anterior to the nasal cavity.

Some terms:

1. Anterior cruciate ligament
2. Left anterior descending artery
3. Anterior corticospinal tract
4. Anterior communicating artery
5. Anterior pituitary gland

Posterior

Posterior means at the back, back, or toward the back (of the body or a body part).
Posterior is also called dorsal.

Examples using “posterior”:

1. The esophagus is posterior to the trachea.
2. The spine is posterior to the sternum.
3. The lower spine is posterior to the abdomen.
4. The calf muscles are located on the posterior side of the leg.
5. The nasal cavity is posterior to the nose.

Some terms:

1. Posterior cruciate ligament
2. Posterior pituitary gland
3. Posterior tibial artery
4. Posterior superior iliac spine
5. Posterior cerebral artery

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Superior and Inferior

** To easily remember these terms, imagine dividing the body or body part into upper and lower parts.

Superior

Superior means toward the head; nearer to the head; or upper part of the body or body part.
Superior is sometimes called cephalic or cranial.

Examples using “superior”:

1. The neck is superior to the chest.
** Here, the neck is located nearer to the head or upper part of the body.
2. The head is superior to the neck.
3. The abdominal cavity is superior to the pelvic cavity.
4. The humerus (arm bone) is superior to the radius and ulna (forearm bones).
5. The elbow is superior to the wrist.

Some terms:

1. Superior vena cava
2. Superior oblique muscle
3. Superior rectus muscle
4. Superior thyroid artery
5. Superior lobe of the lung

Inferior means away from the head, below; or lower part of the body or body part.
** Sometimes called caudal

Examples using “inferior”:

1. The chest is inferior to the neck.
2. The chest is inferior to the head. (**This still holds true because we are only talking about the chest and head.)
3. The neck is inferior to the head.
4. The left ventricle is inferior to the left atrium.
5. The abdomen is inferior to the chest.

Sample terms:

1. Inferior vena cava
2. Inferior oblique muscle
3. Inferior rectus muscle
4. Inferior lobe of the lung
5. Inferior nasal concha

Proximal and distal

Proximal

Proximal means nearer or closer to the trunk; closer or nearer to the point of origin or point of attachment.

Examples using “proximal”:

1. The shoulder joint is proximal to the trunk.
2. The elbow is more proximal than the wrist.
3. The proximal part of the humerus attaches to the scapula.
4. The site of injury is proximal to the left elbow.
5. The knee joint is more proximal than the ankle joint. (** Our point of origin here is the trunk, and the knee is closer to the trunk than the ankle.)

Some terms:

1. Proximal convoluted tubule (part of the nephron)
2. Proximal phalanx
3. Proximal interphalangeal joint
4. Proximal row of the carpal bones

Distal

Distal means away or farther from the trunk; away or farther from the point of origin or point of attachment.

Examples using “distal”:

1. The wrist joint is distal to the elbow joint.
2. The knee is distal to the hip.
3. The ankle is more distal than the knee joint.
4. The wrist is more distal than the elbow.
5. The distal carpal row includes the trapezium, trapezoid, capitates, and hamate.

Some terms:

1. Distal convoluted tubule
2. Distal carpal row
3. Distal phalanx
4. Distal interphalangeal joint

Medial and lateral

** To easily distinguish these terms, you need to imagine a line that divides the body or body part into left and right parts. Anatomists call that line as midline.

Medial

Medial means near or nearer to the midline of the body or a body part; toward the midline of the body

Examples using “medial”

1. The medial collateral ligament is located on the medial side of the knee.
2. The ulna is more medial than the radius.
3. The big toe is located on the medial side of the foot.
4. The little finger is more medial than the ring finger.
5. The heart is medial to the lungs.

Some terms:

1. Medial collateral ligament
2. Medial condyle
3. Medial malleolus
4. Medial cuneiform
5. Medial border of the scapula

Lateral

Lateral means away from the midline of the body or body part.

Examples using “lateral”:

1. The lateral collateral ligament is located on the lateral side of the knee.
2. The ulna is lateral to the radius.
3. The thumb is located on the lateral side of the hand.
4. The ring finger is more lateral than the little finger.
5. The lungs are lateral to the heart.

Some terms:

1. Lateral collateral ligament
2. Lateral rectus muscle
3. Lateral cuneiform
4. Lateral malleolus
5. Lateral condyle

Superficial and deep

Superficial (external)

Superficial means on or toward the surface; closer to the surface

Examples using “superficial”:

1. The subcutaneous tissue is superficial to the ribs.
2. The skin is more superficial than the muscles.
3. The stratum granulosum is superficial to the stratum spinosum.
4. The straum corneum is the most superficial among the layers of the skin.
5. The stratum corneum is superficial to the stratum lucidum.

Sample terms:

1. Superficial fascia
2. Superficial palmar arch
3. Superficial transverse perineal muscle
4. Superficial temporal artery
5. Superficial temporal vein

Deep (internal)

Deep means farther or away from the surface of the body or body part.

Examples using “deep”:

1. The bones are deep to the muscles.
2. The lungs are deep to the ribs.
3. The deepest layer of the epidermis is the stratum basale.
4. There are two major layers of the skin: the superficial one called the epidermis and the deep layer called the dermis.
5. Deep to the epidermis is the dermis.

Sample terms:

1. Deep fascia
2. Deep palmar arch
3. Deep venous thrombosis
4. Deep plantar venous arches
5. Deep transverse perineal muscle

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References:
Tortora, G. and Grabowski, S.: Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. 10th ed. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2003.

Seeley, R. et al: Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology. 5th ed. McGraw – Hill, 2005.

Everyday Mysteries (February 2009). Library of Congress. Available at http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html. Accessed on February 7, 2017.

National Cancer Institute: SEER Training Modules. National Institutes of Health. Available at https://training.seer.cancer.gov/anatomy/body/terminology.html. Accessed on February 7, 2017.

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