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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)

Understand MeSH

It is best practice to search using both keywords and subject headings.

Move through the slide deck below to learn how to use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) in your search. Alternatively, download the PDF document at the bottom of this box.

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Searching using MeSH

Subject headings allow you to find all articles about a particular concept, regardless of the terminology that is used in the article. You should always use both subject headings and keywords in your search strategy.

Many medical databases have a subject thesaurus which you should use when searching for subject headings.

For example: MEDLINE articles about cancer all have a subject heading of Neoplasms/.

Screenshot of Medline subject heading Neoplasms and its narrower terms: cycts, hamartoma, etc.

  1. Always check a subject heading's scope i.e. look at the scope note by selecting the Scope icon.

Does it match what you want?

Screenshot of medline subject heading search page. The scope note is represented by an i icon on the right of screen.


2. If you use a subject heading (line 1 of below) include this term and the terms in the scope notes in your keyword line (line 2 of the below).

Screenshot of medline search history showing a subject heading line followed by a keyword search line. The lines are combined with OR to make a set.

3. MeSH is a 'tree structure', which branches as terms become more specific. If you identify a heading with additional branches underneath, and you would like to include all of these, you can use the 'Explode' option to include them all at once.

For example, exploding Chronic Disease/ will also search for the more specific terms Multiple Chronic Conditions/ and Noncommunicable Diseases/

Screenshot of medline subject heading tree, showing chronic disease with the explode box ticked. This will include the narrower subject headings: multiple chronic conditions and noncommunicable diseases.

Database thesauri (controlled vocabulary)

Many databases use a thesaurus. It's important to note which is used by the databases you search.

Database Thesaurus
Cochrane Library databases Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) (select records only)
MEDLINE Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
Emcare, Embase Emtree
PsycINFO Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms
SPORTDiscus Sports Thesaurus
CINAHL CINAHL Subject Headings
ERIC ERIC Thesaurus
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, Web of Science databases, Scopus Inconsistently applied subject headings from various thesauri may be present. Search using keywords

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