Anatomy and Physiology All-in-One For Dummies
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The human body is a beautiful and efficient system that everyone should know a little bit about. In order to study and talk about anatomy and physiology, though, you need to learn the language.

You have to have a solid grasp on the directional terms, the body cavities, and the overall organization of the organs and their division of labor.

A familiarity with common Latin and Greek word roots will go a long way too.

Anatomical terms

To speak the language, you first need to have a frame of reference. When comparing one part of the body to another, the position of the body matters. As a result, all descriptions are made assuming the body is in anatomical position: standing upright, facing forward, arms to the side with palms turned out, as shown in the figure below.

Illustration of the female human anatomy
©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Body position for anatomical terms

When you’re talking anatomy in a scientific way, everyday words such as front, back, above, and below just aren’t precise enough. Instead use the terms in the following list:

  • Anterior or ventral: Toward the front of the body
  • Posterior or dorsal: Toward the back of the body
  • Superior: A part above another part
  • Inferior: A part below another part
  • Medial: Toward the midline of the body
  • Lateral: Away from the midline of the body; toward the sides
  • Proximal: Toward the point of attachment to the body
  • Distal: Away from the point of attachment to the body
  • Deep: Toward the inside of the body
  • Superficial: Toward the outside of the body
  • Parietal: A membrane that covers an internal body wall
  • Visceral: A membrane that covers an organ

Also remember that right and left are that of the patient, not the observer.

Body cavities

Medical and crime shows have made body cavities all too familiar, and anatomically speaking, these spaces are very important, providing housing and protection for vital organs. The following list identifies the cavities of the human body.

  • Dorsal cavity: The space within the skull and vertebrae (backbone)
    • Cranial cavity: Contains the brain
    • Spinal cavity: Contains the spinal cord, which is an extension of the brain
  • Ventral cavity: Anterior portion of the torso; divided by the diaphragm into the thoracic cavity and abdominopelvic cavity 
    • Thoracic cavity: The chest or thorax; contains the heart, lungs, and their associated structures, as well as the esophagus and several glands
      • Pleural cavities: Surround each lung
      • Pericardial cavity:  Contains the heart
        The pleural cavities flank the pericardial cavity
  • Abdominopelvic cavity: The portion of the ventral cavity below the diaphragm
    • Abdominal cavity: Contains the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, small intestines, and most of the large intestine
    • Pelvic cavity: Contains the end of the large intestine, rectum, urinary bladder, and internal reproductive organs
      There is no obvious division between these two cavities

Organ systems

The body takes a divide-and-conquer approach to completing all of the tasks it must do to sustain life. Each body system has its own role to play, as shown in the table below.

System What the System Includes What the System Does
Integumentary Skin and its accessories Protects underlying tissues, regulates body temperature
Skeletal Bones and connective tissues Provides framework, protects underlying soft tissues, produces blood cells
Muscular Skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscle Powers movement, maintains posture, generates heat
Nervous Brain, spinal cord, nerves, sensory organs Communicates via impulse, integrates functions of other body systems
Endocrine Pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands; pancreas; ovaries; and testes Communicates via hormones
Cardiovascular Heart, blood vessels, and blood Transports materials throughout body
Lymphatic Tonsils, spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, and lymph Provides immunity, filters tissue fluid
Digestive Mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines (alimentary canal), and accessory organs (including salivary glands, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder) Obtains nutrients from food
Respiratory Nose and mouth, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs Performs gas exchange with blood (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out)
Urinary Kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra Filters waste from the blood, retains water
Reproductive Ovaries, uterine tubes, uterus, vagina, and vulva in females; testes, seminal vesicles, prostate, urethra, and penis in males Produces offspring

Latin and Greek roots

Science, especially medicine, is permeated with Latin and Greek terms. Latin names are used for nearly every part of the body; and since the Greeks are the founders of modern medicine, Greek terms are common in medical terminology, as well.

This table represents some common Latin and Greek roots used in anatomy and physiology:

English Form Meaning Example
angi(o)– vessel angiogram
arthr(o)– joint arthritis
bronch– air passage bronchitis
calc(i)– calcium calcify
card(i)– heart cardiovascular
cili– small hair cilia
corp– body corpus luteum
crani– skull cranium
cut(an)– skin cutaneous
gastr(o)– stomach, belly gastric
gluc(o)– sweet, sugar glucosa
hemat(o)– blood hematology
hist(o)– webbing (tissue) histology
hyster(o)– womb hysterectomy
lig– to bind ligament
osteo– bone osteoblast
pleur– side, rib pleural cavity
pulm(o)– lung pulmonary
ren– kidney renal
squam– scale, flat squamous
thorac– chest thoracic
vasc– vessel vascular

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Erin Odya teaches Anatomy & Physiology at Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana, one of Indiana's top schools. She is also the author of Anatomy & Physiology For Dummies.

Pat DuPree taught anatomy/physiology, biology, medical terminology, and environmental science.

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