Human anatomy study guide
Anatomy is one of the most difficult subjects you will have to learn during your studies. It consists of two main divisions: macroscopic (or “gross” anatomy) and microscopic anatomy. The former deals with large structures that are mostly seen with the naked eye, while the latter involves the study of tissues and their organization into organs and systems on a microscopic level.
Memorizing all these anatomical structures and their corresponding functions is tough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless stream of information, but fear not - we’re here to make it easier for you! Our mission is to guide you safely through the jungle of bones, muscles, nerves, and organs.
Are you ready? Then let’s dive in! :-)
- Anatomy basics
- Anatomy regions
- Sectional anatomy
- Anatomy curriculum for...
- Learning tips and strategies
- Further learning resources
- Anatomy fun facts
Before you start learning about the anatomical structures themselves, you’ll need to make sure that you understand basic anatomy lingo, like terminology and directions.
With several unknown anatomy terms to master in a very short time, learning anatomical terminology can feel a bit like learning a new language. But, with a bit of time and practice, it will quickly feel like one you've been speaking all of your life! To gain a solid foundation, check out the following materials. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about anatomical terminology and directions.
As well as terminology and directional planes, you’ll also need to know the specific anatomical names of different body movements. Check out the comprehensive study unit explaining them below. Afterwards, you can test how well you’ve understood them with one of the integrated quizzes!
If you think of your body as a house, the bones and muscles are the walls and foundation. That is why the upper extremity is usually one of the first topics on your anatomy syllabus. What’s more, injuries of the shoulder and arm are some of the most commonly seen in everyday patient care - so a solid knowledge of their anatomy will serve you well!
Do you know the name of the vein punctured by the needle when you have your blood drawn? How about the name of the nerve that can lead to tingles if you lean on your elbows for a long time? The answers and more information you can find in the following learning materials.
Now that you know all about the upper extremity, it makes sense to move a bit further south to learn about the lower extremity. Ever had a broken leg? Fractures and tendon injuries of the leg, knee and foot are commonly seen so there’s no getting out of learning anatomy from the hip, all the way to the toes. ;-)
The lower limb has four main parts: the hip, thigh, leg, and foot. Flexibility is provided by the hip, knee, and ankle joints which allow you to kick, jump, squat, and shake it on the dance floor. Dive into this topic with the following learning materials.
Upper and lower limbs: check!
Let’s move to the trunk, commonly known as the torso. The trunk is composed of several regions known as the thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and back. Running through the center of the back is the vertebral column, which contains the spinal cord. The musculature of the back helps you maintain your posture, bend your trunk, move your arms, shrug your shoulders, and much more.
Large abdominal muscles, for example the rectus abdominis, also contribute to the trunk. This is the muscle behind the famous ‘six-pack’ that many fitness enthusiasts strive for. Curious? Read on.
You’re now ready to learn about one of the most interesting topics in anatomy - internal organs. Let’s begin with those found in the thorax. Impairments of the heart and the lungs can easily lead to life-threatening conditions. Learning these will help you to be prepared in cases of emergency and also in caring for patients with chronic disorders.
In the world of anatomy, the chest is called the thorax and it is located between the neck and the abdomen. This region can be considered the epicentre of the circulatory system and the primary player in breathing, the latter function being mainly controlled by the diaphragm.
The thorax is as complex on the inside as it is on the outside. Internally it consists of the thoracic cavity that, first and foremost, houses the lungs. Altogether, the lungs occupy a surface area equivalent to the size of a tennis court. Sandwiched between the lungs is the mediastinum, a space that contains blood vessels, nerves, lymphatics, and most importantly, the heart. This vital organ pumps 5 liters of blood every minute of your waking day through the entire body. Read on to find out more!
Abdomen and pelvis
Continuing inferiorly to the thorax, we find the abdomen and pelvis. These two regions are often taught separately for didactic purposes, but their contents blend together into one large abdominopelvic cavity. The largest organ system located here is the gastrointestinal tract. The intestines, which are mainly responsible for absorption, snail through these regions for a total of 7.5 meters, the equivalent of four human beings stacked upright on top of each other.
Four important accessory organs that help the gastrointestinal tract to perform its functions are the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen. They help especially with the digestion of proteins and fats, as well as metabolic processing.
It's easy to think that the abdomen and pelvis are already overfilled with the structures of the gastrointestinal tract, but there is in fact more! Organs like the kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder, and several reproductive structures are also located here. They form entire systems that work in unison to ensure that you eliminate wastes, react to stressful or scary situations, and reproduce. More details are provided below:
Head and neck
For a lot of students, the head and neck will be the next topic on your anatomy curriculum. Knowing these structures by heart will help you to easily access and describe vital functions.
A strong and mobile neck supports a five-kilogram head, which in turn contains the brain. Vital nerves and blood vessels pass through the neck while traveling between the head and the rest of the body, so understanding these regions is important.
Now that we’ve covered some basics, let’s focus on the head. It consists of several bones joined together that form the bony skull, or cranium, parts of which enclose the brain, and some which form the facial skeleton. The head comprises several associated structures, such as eyes, a nose, ears, and a mouth. These are involved in a variety of functions, like vision, smell, hearing, eating and speaking, to name a few.
The neck serves as a passageway between the head and thorax. The nasal and oral cavities are continued by the pharynx, commonly called the throat. This muscular passage facilitates the movement of liquids, food, and air towards your food pipe (esophagus) and windpipe (trachea), respectively. The neck also houses many cartilages, muscles, organs, blood vessels, and nerves like the larynx (voice box), thyroid gland and cervical plexus.
Brain injuries, like strokes or lesions of the spinal cord, can have a huge impact on a patient's life, so let’s learn more about the structures implicated and how they communicate with the rest of the body.
How does the brain communicate with other regions, for instance the hand, to produce a movement or to sense objects? Through nerves, a concept explained by neuroanatomy. The nervous system controls every function of the human body. For example, it is involved in physiological processes like body temperature, voluntary movements, and higher-order thinking such as consciousness and emotional behavior.
The nervous system is made up of two structural divisions, central and peripheral. The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and the spinal cord, which are protected by layers called meninges and bathed in cerebrospinal fluid. The brain is the master regulator of the body and has four main parts: cerebrum, subcortical structures, brainstem, and cerebellum.
The cerebrum is divided into five lobes and forms the largest part of the human brain, being responsible for cognition. However, every part of the brain is equally important. Do you know the main hero keeping a patient alive during a ‘vegetative state’ or a coma? It’s the sole work of the brainstem, as the cerebrum is dysfunctional during such times.
The spinal cord is the continuation of the brainstem, traveling through the vertebral column. It consists of five regions known as cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccyx. Spinal nerves emerge from the spinal cord through the vertebrae, carrying nerve impulses to and from the periphery. The brain and spinal cord communicate via neural pathways called tracts. Ascending tracts carry peripheral information up towards the brain, while descending tracts transport information back down from the brain.
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) refers to all neural tissue located outside the CNS. It consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves, the 31 pairs of spinal nerves mentioned previously, and all their branches. The PNS reaches and innervates every single anatomical structure of the human body.
You are now ready to dive even deeper, to a microscopic level. In histology you study normal cells and tissues specific for each organ, mainly with the use of a microscope. The sound knowledge of these normal histologic structures is essential for understanding the histopathology or pathology of any disease, which often cause specific changes in cells and tissues.
There’s no denying it: histology is hard. But keep calm and improve your knowledge with our histology slide quizzes!
Cross-sections are obtained by taking real slices of organs, vessels, nerves, bones, soft tissue, or even the entire human body based on a cadaver. They provide the perception of ‘depth’, creating three-dimensional relationships between anatomical structures in your mind’s eye. They build the entire picture, improve your understanding, consolidate the information and facilitate recall.
In addition, radiological techniques like ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are based on cross sectional anatomy. In everyday patient care these are essential for precise diagnoses, planning therapy and performing interventions.
Learning the anatomy of the body in cross-sections will be a great starting point to solidify your anatomy knowledge and to be able to identify structures in radiology.
Anatomy curriculum for...
A sound knowledge of anatomy is clinically relevant for all health care professionals. However, you will encounter a slightly different curricula depending on the subject you are studying. Below, we’ve summarised the main anatomical areas of study for various healthcare professions.
Doctors are the ones making diagnoses, interpreting tests and deciding on the appropriate course of treatment. Therefore it is necessary that medical students get the most detailed education when it comes to anatomy. Their courses range from gross and microscopic anatomy, neuroanatomy and histology to cadaveric and cross sectional anatomy. You name it, they have to learn it.
Nurses assist doctors in treating and caring for patients based on therapeutic plans. That’s why nursing students also need a good working knowledge of anatomy. However, their courses don’t go into such detail as for medical students, e.g. cadaveric dissections and radiological anatomy are not part of their curriculum.
As the health professionals specialised to support patients with impairments of joints, muscles or bones, the main anatomy focus for physiotherapy students is the musculoskeletal system. Therefore most schools focus on gross anatomy and miss out topics like histology or radiological anatomy.
Learning tips and strategies
Anatomy learning tips
There are some do’s and dont’s that you should always keep in mind when studying. Avoiding the procrastination vortex, navigating learning myths, memorization tricks, passing exams… there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. Find our top tips on how to best get through it all below!
Want to know more? Check out our in-depth guide to the best learning techniques and resources.
3D anatomy tools
There’s a lot of debate regarding the advantages and disadvantages of learning anatomy in 3D. It’s not an ideal way to learn in all situations, but muscle anatomy is one area where we really recommend it. Muscles help us move, and muscle movement occurs in a three-dimensional plane, so it only makes sense to learn them with the aid of 3D tools.
Click on the link below to check out our huge range of 3D muscle anatomy videos!
Muscle anatomy charts
Need an extra hand to learn muscle anatomy? Along with our 3D muscle function videos, our muscle anatomy charts will help you to learn muscle anatomy with ease. What can you expect from them? Charts divide muscles into body regions and groups, with attachments, innervations and functions clearly labeled. They’re a huge time-saver!
Browse the full range of muscle anatomy charts - and grab your free copy of the Lower Limb Muscle Chart!
Further learning resources
You should now be familiar with the different anatomy topics that we cover here at Kenhub. Learning other topics as part of your studies, like Pathology, Physiology, Biochemistry and Biology? Here are some resources to help you even further! :-)
Khan academy (Health and Medicine)
Biology corner (Biology)
Interactive biology (Biology)
Speed pharmacology (Pharmacology tutorials)
University of Michigan (Histology)
Pathology Outlines (Pathology)
Goljan (Rapid Review Pathology)
Head Neck Brain Spine (Radiology)
Dr. Najeeb (USMLE)
First Aid Basic Sciences (USMLE)
Medcram (Medical school topics)
Armando Hasudungan (Medical school topics tutorials)
Handwritten tutorials (Medical school topics tutorials)
iMedicalSchool (Medical school tutorials)
One Minute Medical School (Medical school tutorials)
Harvard Medical School (Biomedical research and education)
US National Library of Medicine (Medical videos)
Allnurses (Nurses community for nursing and students)
American Nurses Association
Volunteer Opportunities for nursing students
CasesBlog (Clinical cases and images)
Virginia Henderson International Nursing Library
Trauma care (Cases, library and resources)
Practical clinical skills (train ECGs and more)
Learningnurse (Assessments, E-learning tools, Quizzes)
Physicaltherapyvideo (Health and physiotherapy videos)
Physiotutors (Physiotherapy videos)
Physiofitness (Physio rehab videos)
British journal of sports medicine (Sports medicine videos)
Modern manual medicine (Sports medicine and physiotherapy videos)
Anatomy fun facts
Wowed by the complexity of the human body? Here are some fun facts to continue to blow your mind…
- The human body contains nearly 100 trillion cells.
- There are at least 10 times as many bacteria in the human body as cells.
- The average adult takes over 20,000 breaths a day.
- The human brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells.
- Water makes up more than 50 percent of the average adult's body weight.