Background Facts

Anatomical Terminology

Directional Terms of the Body

Standard directional terms are used to describe the location of one body part in relation to another body part. Most directional terms occur as pairs with one term of the pair having the opposite meaning of the other term.

Term Definition Example
Superior (cranial or cephalic) Toward the head The head is superior to the neck
Inferior (caudal) Away from the head; toward the feet The neck is inferior to the head
Anterior (ventral) Toward the front The toes are anterior to the heel
Posterior (dorsal) Toward the back The heel is posterior to the toes
Medial Toward the midline of the body The nose is medial to the eyes
Lateral Away from the midline of the body; towards the sides The eyes are lateral to the nose
Proximal Toward the trunk of the body; nearer the attachment of an extremity to the trunk The shoulder is proximal to the elbow
Distal Away from the trunk of the body; further from the attachment of an extremity to the trunk The wrist is distal to the shoulder
Superficial (external) Near the surface of the body The skin is superficial to the muscles
Deep (internal) Farther from the surface of the body The heart is deeper than the ribs

Doctors and others who study anatomy divide the human form into several directional planes to help them describe parts of the body. (From Willis, M.C. Medical Terminology: A Programmed Learning Approach to the Language of Health Care. Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2002.)

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