By Maggie Norris, Donna Rae Siegfried

Terms that indicate direction make no sense if you’re looking at the body the wrong way. You likely know your right from your left, but ignoring perspective can get you all mixed up. Stand up straight. Look forward. Let your arms hang down at your sides and turn your palms so they’re facing forward. You are now in anatomical position.

Unless you are told otherwise, any reference to location (diagram or description) in the study of anatomy assumes this position. Using anatomical position as the standard removes confusion.

anatomy-physiology-position
Illustration by Kathryn Born, MA

The standard anatomical position.

The following list of common anatomical descriptive terms (direction words) may come in handy:

  • Right: Toward the patient’s right
  • Left: Toward the patient’s left
  • Anterior/ventral: Front, or toward the front of the body
  • Posterior/dorsal: Back, or toward the back of the body
  • Medial: Toward the middle of the body
  • Lateral: On the side or toward the side of the body
  • Proximal: Nearer to the point of attachment or the trunk of the body
  • Distal: Farther from the point of attachment or the trunk of the body (think “distance”)
  • Superficial: Nearer to the surface of the body
  • Deep: Farther from the surface of the body
  • Superior: Above or higher than another part
  • Inferior: Below or lower than another part

Notice that this list of terms is actually a series of pairs. Learning them as pairs is more effective and useful.