By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Use appropriate anatomical terminology to identify key body structures, body regions, and directions in the body
- Demonstrate the anatomical position
- Describe the human body using directional and regional terms
- Identify three planes most commonly used in the study of anatomy
- Distinguish between major body cavities
Anatomists and health care providers use terminology that can be bewildering to the uninitiated; however, the purpose of this language is not to confuse, but rather to increase precision and reduce medical errors. For example, is a scar “above the wrist” located on the forearm two or three inches away from the hand? Or is it at the base of the hand? Is it on the palm-side or back-side? By using precise anatomical terminology, we eliminate ambiguity. For example, you might say a scar “on the anterior antebrachium 3 inches proximal to the carpus”. Anatomical terms are derived from ancient Greek and Latin words. Because these languages are no longer used in everyday conversation, the meaning of their words do not change.
Anatomical terms are made up of roots, prefixes, and suffixes. The root of a term often refers to an organ, tissue, or condition, whereas the prefix or suffix often describes the root. For example, in the disorder hypertension, the prefix “hyper-” means “high” or “over,” and the root word “tension” refers to pressure, so the word “hypertension” refers to abnormally high blood pressure.
To further increase precision, anatomists standardize the way in which they view the body. Just as maps are normally oriented with north at the top, the standard body “map,” or anatomical position, is that of the body standing upright, with the feet at shoulder width and parallel, toes forward. The upper limbs are held out to each side, and the palms of the hands face forward as illustrated in [link]. Using this standard position reduces confusion. It does not matter how the body being described is oriented, the terms are used as if it is in anatomical position. For example, a scar in the “anterior (front) carpal (wrist) region” would be present on the palm side of the wrist. The term “anterior” would be used even if the hand were palm down on a table.
Regions of the Human Body
The human body is shown in anatomical position in an (a) anterior view and a (b) posterior view. The regions of the body are labeled in boldface.
A body that is lying down is described as either prone or supine. Prone describes a face-down orientation, and supine describes a face up orientation. These terms are sometimes used in describing the position of the body during specific physical examinations or surgical procedures.
The human body’s numerous regions have specific terms to help increase precision (see [link]). Notice that the term “brachium” or “arm” is reserved for the “upper arm” and “antebrachium” or “forearm” is used rather than “lower arm.” Similarly, “femur” or “thigh” is correct, and “leg” or “crus” is reserved for the portion of the lower limb between the knee and the ankle. You will be able to describe the body’s regions using the terms from the figure.
Certain directional anatomical terms appear throughout this and any other anatomy textbook ([link]). These terms are essential for describing the relative locations of different body structures. For instance, an anatomist might describe one band of tissue as “inferior to” another or a physician might describe a tumor as “superficial to” a deeper body structure. Commit these terms to memory to avoid confusion when you are studying or describing the locations of particular body parts.
- Anterior (or ventral) describes the front or direction toward the front of the body. The toes are anterior to the foot.
- Posterior (or dorsal) describes the back or direction toward the back of the body. The popliteus is posterior to the patella.
- Superior (or cranial) describes a position above or higher than another part of the body proper. The orbits are superior to the oris.
- Inferior (or caudal) describes a position below or lower than another part of the body proper; near or toward the tail (in humans, the coccyx, or lowest part of the spinal column). The pelvis is inferior to the abdomen.
- Lateral describes the side or direction toward the side of the body. The thumb (pollex) is lateral to the digits.
- Medial describes the middle or direction toward the middle of the body. The hallux is the medial toe.
- Proximal describes a position in a limb that is nearer to the point of attachment or the trunk of the body. The brachium is proximal to the antebrachium.
- Distal describes a position in a limb that is farther from the point of attachment or the trunk of the body. The crus is distal to the femur.
- Superficial describes a position closer to the surface of the body. The skin is superficial to the bones.
- Deep describes a position farther from the surface of the body. The brain is deep to the skull.
Paired directional terms are shown as applied to the human body.
A section is a two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional structure that has been cut. Modern medical imaging devices enable clinicians to obtain “virtual sections” of living bodies. We call these scans. Body sections and scans can be correctly interpreted, only if the viewer understands the plane along which the section was made. A plane is an imaginary, two-dimensional surface that passes through the body. There are three planes commonly referred to in anatomy and medicine, as illustrated in [link].
- The sagittal plane divides the body or an organ vertically into right and left sides. If this vertical plane runs directly down the middle of the body, it is called the midsagittal or median plane. If it divides the body into unequal right and left sides, it is called a parasagittal plane or less commonly a longitudinal section.
- The frontal plane divides the body or an organ into an anterior (front) portion and a posterior (rear) portion. The frontal plane is often referred to as a coronal plane. (“Corona” is Latin for “crown.”)
- The transverse (or horizontal) plane divides the body or organ horizontally into upper and lower portions. Transverse planes produce images referred to as cross sections.
The three planes most commonly used in anatomical and medical imaging are the sagittal, frontal (or coronal), and transverse planes.
The body maintains its internal organization by means of membranes, sheaths, and other structures that separate compartments. The main cavities of the body include the cranial, thoracic and abdominopelvic (also known as the peritoneal) cavities. The cranial bones create the cranial cavity where the brain sits. The thoracic cavity is enclosed by the rib cage and contains the lungs and the heart, which is located in the mediastinum. The diaphragm forms the floor of the thoracic cavity and separates it from the more inferior abdominopelvic/peritoneal cavity. The abdominopelvic/peritoneal cavity is the largest cavity in the body. Although no membrane physically divides the abdominopelvic cavity, it can be useful to distinguish between the abdominal cavity, (the division that houses the digestive organs), and the pelvic cavity, (the division that houses the organs of reproduction).
Abdominal Regions and Quadrants
To promote clear communication, for instance, about the location of a patient’s abdominal pain or a suspicious mass, health care providers typically divide up the cavity into either nine regions or four quadrants ([link]).
There are (a) nine abdominal regions and (b) four abdominal quadrants in the peritoneal cavity.
The more detailed regional approach subdivides the cavity with one horizontal line immediately inferior to the ribs and one immediately superior to the pelvis, and two vertical lines drawn as if dropped from the midpoint of each clavicle (collarbone). There are nine resulting regions. The simpler quadrants approach, which is more commonly used in medicine, subdivides the cavity with one horizontal and one vertical line that intersect at the patient’s umbilicus (navel).
Ancient Greek and Latin words are used to build anatomical terms. A standard reference position for mapping the body’s structures is the normal anatomical position. Regions of the body are identified using terms such as “occipital” that are more precise than common words and phrases such as “the back of the head.” Directional terms such as anterior and posterior are essential for accurately describing the relative locations of body structures. Images of the body’s interior commonly align along one of three planes: the sagittal, frontal, or transverse.
Critical Thinking Questions
In which direction would an MRI scanner move to produce sequential images of the body in the frontal plane, and in which direction would an MRI scanner move to produce sequential images of the body in the sagittal plane?
If the body were supine or prone, the MRI scanner would move from top to bottom to produce frontal sections, which would divide the body into anterior and posterior portions, as in “cutting” a deck of cards. Again, if the body were supine or prone, to produce sagittal sections, the scanner would move from left to right or from right to left to divide the body lengthwise into left and right portions.