The human body is a complex and intricate piece of engineering in which every structure plays a precise role. There are approximately 200 bones, 650 muscles, 79 organs, and enough blood vessels to circle the Earth twice!
Medical schools typically teach the anatomy of these structures in approximately one academic year. However, what does human anatomy actually entail?
In this article, we’ll take a look at what this subject means and how you can tackle it in the most logical way.
|Regional anatomy||Organises the body into defined parts: Upper limb, lower limb, trunk and back, thorax, abdomen and pelvis, head and neck, neuroanatomy|
|Systemic anatomy||Evaluates the body by defined systems: Integumentary, musculoskeletal, nervous, endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, lymphatic systems|
|Microscopic anatomy||Looks at the microscopic structure of tissues and organs|
|Other methods||Clincal/applied anatomy, cross-section, medical imaging|
- Basics and terminology
- Regional anatomy
- Abdomen and pelvis
- Systemic anatomy
- Integumentary system
- Microscopic anatomy
- Alternative learning approaches
Basics and terminology
First things first, what is anatomy and where did it all begin? The term 'anatomy' derives from ancient Greek meaning ‘dissection’ or 'to dissect’ and involves the study of the structure of the human body. This 2000 year old scientific discipline sprung to life in Ancient Egypt and was increasingly developed across the ages by anatomy heavyweights like Galen, Leonardo da Vinci, Vesalius, and many others.
Learning such a complex subject can only be accomplished by taking small and logical steps. What’s the best place to start? By mastering the basics, such as directions, movements, body planes, and overall anatomical terminology.
In a nutshell, three main anatomical planes divide the body into frontal, lateral, and transverse views. These views showcase the position and relations between anatomical structures, which are described by precise terms, for example superior, inferior, lateral, and many others. Movements can also be described by standardly accepted terms, such as flexion and extension. With this vocabulary up our sleeves, it’s time to dive deeper into the subject and find out more about its learning approaches. Human anatomy consists of two main divisions:
- Macroscopic or gross anatomy
- Microscopic anatomy
Let’s begin by taking a look at macroscopic or gross anatomy. As the name suggests, this branch deals with large structures that are mostly seen with the naked eye. It describes where every human body structure is located (topography), similar to how a geographic map of an area shows all the landmarks in a particular perimeter. Not only that, but it also describes how the structures are connected to each other, their starting and end points, their layering, and so on. There are two fundamental approaches to studying gross anatomy: a regional and a systemic one.
Regional anatomy organizes the body into several body parts or regions: upper limbs, lower limbs, trunk (thorax, abdomen, pelvis, back), head, and neck. This approach divides teaching and learning into discrete regional didactic areas, each one containing its respective bones, joints, muscles, arteries, veins, nerves, lymphatics, and organs. Let’s take a look at all these regions and learn some basics about each one.
Let’s begin by talking about the extremities, the structures responsible for interacting with the environment, locomotion, weight bearing, and many more. The upper limb consists of four main parts: shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand. In turn, the mobility of the limb is provided by the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints onto which various muscles act. However, their action depends on innervation, and their viability on proper nutrition and blood supply. 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 can be read in the following study units.
The lower limb has four main parts, called the hip, thigh, leg, and foot. The flexibility is provided by the hip, knee, and ankle joints which allow you to kick, jump, squat, and shake it on the dance floor. The lower extremity contains some of the most powerful muscles in the human body, which are organized into various compartments. Significant vessels like the femoral artery and the longest nerve in the human body, the sciatic nerve, supply this limb.
The following materials contain more details about the neurovasculature of the lower limb.
Trunk and back
The upper and lower limbs are attached to an anatomical structure called the trunk, commonly known as the torso. The trunk is composed of several regions called the thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and back. Running through the center of the back is the vertebral column which contains the spinal cord. Large back muscles such as the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids as well as deeper, smaller ones are attached to various points of the vertebral column. The musculature of the back helps you maintain your posture, bend your trunk, move your arms, shrug your shoulders, and much more.
In the previous section we’ve learned about the regions comprising the trunk, three of which were the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis. Let’s discuss each one very briefly. You’ve probably heard the expression ‘my heart is beating out of my chest’. However, what is the chest? 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 thoracic wall protects the internal contents and also supports the breasts.
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. These two vital organs are enveloped by membranes called the pleura and they are responsible for breathing. 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 is enclosed inside a sac called the pericardium and pumps 5 liters of blood every minute of your waking day through the entire body.
Abdomen and pelvis
Continuing inferiorly to the thorax, we come across the abdomen and pelvis. These two regions are often taught separately for didactic purposes, but their contents blend together into one large abdominopelvic cavity. Internally, it is lined by a membrane called the peritoneum which wraps around many structures, making them intraperitoneal. The ones located outside the membrane are named extraperitoneal. 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 accessory organs that help the gastrointestinal tract to perform its functions are located inside the abdominopelvic cavity. These 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 overfilled with the gastrointestinal tract, but there's even more! Organs like the kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder, and female and male 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.
Your abdomen and pelvis are the home to some of the body’s largest blood vessels. Since they supply major organs and even more distal body parts, they are large caliber structures transporting liters of blood. For example, if either the aorta or a renal artery ruptures during a traumatic event, the person would die in several minutes. Important nerves can also be found in these regions, controlling the activity of the abdominopelvic organs and allowing you to feel pain.
Head and neck
In addition to the limbs, two more regions extend from the trunk that work in perfect harmony; a strong and mobile neck that supports a five-kilogram head, which also includes the brain. Vital nerves and blood vessels pass through the neck while traveling between the head and the rest of the body, so mastering these regions is important.
Now that we know 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 that form the facial skeleton. The head has several associated structures, such as eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. They have a variety of functions, for instance, vision, smell, hearing, eating, and speaking, to name a few.
Do you know why you can taste nasal drops or why you blow your nose after crying? That’s because some of the previously mentioned structures are directly communicating with each other. Read on to find out how!
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 windpipe (trachea) and food pipe (esophagus), respectively. In addition to the pharynx, the neck also houses many cartilages, muscles, organs, blood vessels, and nerves. Important structures include the larynx (voice box), thyroid gland, hyoid muscles, carotid arteries, jugular veins, and cervical plexus.
Learn more details about the neurovasculature of the head and neck from the following articles:
Knowing the anatomy of each region of the human body is essential. However, 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 behaviour.
The nervous system has 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 solely the brainstem, as the cerebrum is dysfunctional.
The spinal cord is the continuation of the brainstem, travelling through the vertebral column. It consists of five regions called 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.
As you can see, the regions of the human body are extremely complex. Starting from the top, the head allows you to gather information via sensorial structures, but not only, while the brain integrates and controls everything via the nervous system. The head rests on the neck, which provides a passageway for structures traveling to and from the thorax. Below the neck is the trunk, which is composed of the thoracic, abdominal, pelvic, and back regions. The trunk supports the body, facilitates movements, and protects various anatomical structures, such as internal organs, blood vessels, and nerves which are situated inside the respective cavities. Attached to it are two upper and lower limbs, which allow you to function as a human being, move, interact with your environment, and many more.
We've covered regional anatomy, dividing our body into discrete areas. However, the human body also consists of physiological systems that span multiple regions and are composed of many anatomical structures. Systemic anatomy, the second branch of human anatomy, subdivides the body into discrete organ systems that work together towards a common goal or function. The ten systems are called integumentary, musculoskeletal (skeletal, muscular), nervous, endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, and lymphatic.
In contrast to its previous counterpart, the systemic approach divides studying into areas dealing with specific functions rather than locations or proximity. This approach covers anatomy from a more physiological perspective, studying structures that accomplish one body function together. For example, the nervous system covers all nerves in the body, which span different regions from the brain to the lower limb.
The integumentary system consists of the skin and its associated appendages, such as hair follicles, nails, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands. It is involved in a variety of functions, including protection, tactile and thermal sensation, as well as temperature regulation through sweating.
The 200 bones of the human body act as a scaffold, providing support, protection, facilitating locomotion, and even storing various cells and substances. The bones are the pulley systems onto which muscles act, the latter being capable of contracting and relaxing, ultimately producing movement.
Nerves are responsible for transporting electrical impulses, which permit communication between the brain, spinal cord, our senses, and every peripherical anatomical structure. This communication allows humans to interact with their environment, sense, feel emotions, think, and perform many other complex cognitive tasks.
The endocrine system consists of glands that release substances called hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones allow chemical communication between anatomical structures, inducing various regulatory effects upon reaching their targets.
The circulatory system is responsible for keeping us alive by providing oxygenated, arterial blood, to every part of the human body. The key player is the heart, an organ that pumps oxygenated blood into arteries, which then returns back to the heart via veins as deoxygenated blood.
The main function of the respiratory system is to keep us alive via the inhalation of oxygen and elimination of carbon dioxide. The lungs and alveoli represent the site of gas exchange, which involve a series of convoluted air passages and membranes.
The digestive system is essentially a hollow system with two openings consisting of several organs. Food is ingested via the mouth, it is processed and absorbed inside the system, and the resulting solid wastes called feces are eliminated via the anus.
The urinary (excretory) system is the major filtering unit of the human body, being responsible for purifying the blood and eliminating wastes. The entire blood is continuously passed through the kidneys and the resulting unwanted or toxic substances are passed to the bladder, ultimately being eliminated via the urethra.
The main responsibility of the reproductive system is to facilitate the generation of new offspring and to pass on our genes. The female system produces the eggs and nourishes the developing fetus until birth, while the male system synthesizes sperm and delivers it towards the egg to aid fertilization.
The lymphatic system is involved in the removal of interstitial fluid from tissues, the transport of absorbed fats after digestion, and in protection. Immune cells and substances travel via the lymphatic system, sampling lymph for any potential invaders and mounting an immune response if needed.
There are a lot of systems, so let’s quickly summarize them. The integumentary system covers the entire body, protecting it from damage and regulating body temperature. The scaffold is provided by the skeletal system onto which the muscles act, ultimately facilitating movement. The nervous and endocrine systems are the main regulators, controlling the activity of almost everything via nerves and hormones, respectively. The respiratory and circulatory systems keep us alive by facilitating breathing and pumping blood around the body, while the digestive systems permits feeding. The resulting wastes are removed and excreted from the body by the urinary system. Last but not least, the reproductive system prevents humanity from going extinct, while the lymphatic system transports lymph and plays a role in the protection from microorganisms.
Up until now, we’ve discussed gross anatomy, which deals with the macroscopic or large structures of the human body. However, what happens at the microscopic level, where structures are too small to be seen with the naked eye? Microscopic anatomy, the second branch of human anatomy, is the study of tissues and their organization into organs and organ systems. Since this subdivision of anatomy deals with structures that are barely visible to the naked eye, such as microscopic arteries, veins, capillaries, and nerves, it exploits the magnifying power of microscopes.
Microscopic anatomy and histology are often used interchangeably, but they are quite distinct. Histology has a much broader scope, dealing with the structure and organization of tissues at all levels, from the intracellular components, to cells, and all the way to organs. In contrast, microscopic anatomy has a narrower scope, dealing only with ‘microstructures’ and the organization of tissues into organs. Let’s use the example of the skeletal muscle motor unit to put it into context. Microscopic anatomy describes skeletal muscle as consisting of fascicles and subsequent fibers, while neurons consisting of axons. However, histology explains much more, including the internal structure of the fibers, of each muscle cell, of the axons, as well as the appearance of the nuclei, and so on.
Alternative learning approaches
Teaching anatomy according to either regions or systems is the classical, standard approach used to teach the subject worldwide. In this way, you learn the fundamental knowledge and details about every anatomical structure. However, it lacks context. You need other methods that can relate structures to each other and place the knowledge in a clinical context, ultimately facilitating learning and long term retention. There are two such methods that can achieve this; case reports and cross-sections.
Clinical and applied anatomy through case reports
Clinical and applied anatomy is an interesting and powerful way to learn difficult anatomical aspects in a clinical context. Case reports describe real-life scenarios encountered by physicians during their daily practice. The cases are structured systematically, starting with the patient’s complaints, followed by the diagnostic and management approaches. These aspects are then integrated with your anatomy knowledge to put the entire case into context and help you learn the importance of various anatomical structures encountered during your daily studies. Therefore, clinical cases are excellent learning tools!
The second learning approach includes cross-sections, which can add a lot of depth to your learning. They are created by transverse cuts, resulting in a view that adds a dimension of depth to the typical frontal and lateral views used in standard anatomy learning. This combination of height, width, and depth ultimately builds a complete 3D picture of the precise location of every anatomical structure.
Without cross-sections, you wouldn’t be able to truly understand how muscles are layered, how organs are wedged or contact one another, or how neurovascular structures twist and turn along their course, for example. Therefore, they add a lot of context to your anatomy learning! They are also used by physicians on a daily basis, for example when looking at CT scans, during surgeries, or while performing standard maneuvers. When draining excess fluid from a patient’s thorax or abdomen, it’s important to know how deep you can safely advance the needle without puncturing a vital organ or blood vessel, right?
Therefore, human anatomy is a vast subject. It consists of two main divisions, called macroscopic (gross) and microscopic anatomy. The former deals with large structures that can be learned according to either regions or systems, which can be placed into context by using case reports and cross-sections. The latter studies anatomical structures that require microscopes for visualization. Mastering this subject requires excellent fundamental anatomical terminology and vocabulary as well, so it’s important not to overlook this aspect. Good luck in your anatomy learning endeavours from all of us at Kenhub!