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Anatomical Planes and Directional Terms

Anatomical Planes and Directional Terms

One of the first things EMS learn in medical terminology classes are anatomical directions and the anatomical planes of the body. This page can teach you the basics or be a refresher for current medical personnel.


Anatomical Terminology

Before we discuss anatomical planes, it’s good to learn how to talk about body structures by learning directional terms of the body. Anatomical directions help avoid confusion, prevent further injury and prevent mistakes. 

Directional terms also help us to explain where one body part is in relation to another body part. It’s a way for medical personnel to be specific and easily understand each other.


Directional Terms of the Body

Here are the most common directional terms used. The anatomical directions below are under separate headings to show how they relate to each other.

For example, anterior and posterior are grouped together because the coronal anatomical planes divide the body into anterior and posterior parts. See the pics below for a better understanding of these terms.


Anterior and Posterior

Anterior: Front, Toward the front.

Posterior: Back, Behind, Toward the rear.


Proximal and Distal

Distal: Away from, Farther from the trunk or the point or attachment. Ex: The foot is distal to the knee. 

Proximal: Near, Closer to the point of attachment, Toward the trunk. Ex: The knee is proximal to the foot. 


Superior and Inferior

Superior: Above, Towards the head, Over.

Inferior: Below, Under, Towards the feet.


Medial and Lateral

Lateral: Toward the side, Away from the mid-line. The lungs lie lateral to the heart.

Medial: Away from the side, Toward the mid-line, Middle. Ex: The heart is medial to the lungs.


Dorsal and Ventral

Dorsal: Near the upper surface, Opposite the ventral surface, Toward the back.

Ventral: Toward the bottom and front, Opposite the dorsal surface, toward the belly.


Rostral and Caudal

Rostral: Toward the front of the head, Latin meaning is toward the beak/nose. 

Caudal: Toward the back, Inferior to another structure, Latin meaning is toward the tail.


Superficial and Deep

Superficial: Closer to the surface of the body structure or organ.

Deep: Further from the surface of the body structure or  organ.


Anatomical Planes of the Body

Fans of horror films will understand how the anatomic planes divide the body because scary movies love to show the scary effect. This includes films like The Cell, Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship, Resident Evil and even The Dome TV show.

Anatomical planes are hypothetical flat surfaces that go through the body dividing it into sections. They are used to describe the location of structures in the body and help with anatomical directions.

First responders and other medical personnel should be familiar with the following anatomical planes of the body.

  • Coronal plane
  • Midsagittal Plane
  • Parasagittal Plane
  • Oblique Plane
  • Transverse Plane  

Anatomical planes and anatomical terminology go hand in hand. 


Anatomical Planes Defined

Coronal/ Frontal Plane Definition: The coronal plane is also called the frontal plane. They are vertical anatomical planes that divide the body into front and back sections. In directional terms, the coronal plane creates anterior and posterior body sections.


Frontal Plane Anterior and Posterior


Midsagittal Plane: The midsagittal is a vertical plane running from front to back that divides the body into right and left sides. The midsagittal plane travels down the midline so the left and right side will both be equal in size.

In directional terms, body structures toward the midsagittal plane tend to be medial while structures farther away tend to be distal. (See parasagittal plane pic.)

Axial/ Transverse Plane Definition: The transverse plane is also called the axial plane. They are horizontal anatomical planes that divide the body into upper and lower sections. In directional terms, a transverse plane creates superior and inferior body segments.


Transverse Superior and inferior
When describing the right or left sides, you use the patient’s right, not your right.


Parasagittal Plane: The parasagittal plane is a vertical anatomical plane that divides the body into right and left sides which are not equal in size. The parasagittal view is like the Midsagittal plane, but it’s not in the middle.


Midsagittal Oblique Planes


Oblique Plane: The oblique plane is used much less often than the other anatomical planes of the body. It is slanted at an angle. An oblique plane can be at any angle that is between the horizontal and vertical planes. 


What is the Anatomical Position

When discussing anatomical planes of the body and anatomical directions, we refer to the anatomical position to avoid confusion and prevent mistakes. It’s assumed the patient is in the anatomical position unless a different position is specified. It looks like this:

  • Upright standing
  • Facing forward
  • Arms at sides
  • Feet facing forward
  • Palms facing forward


What Is Anatomical Position Image


Take note of the anatomical position of the hands because this frequently causes confusion.

Interested in more of the basics for EMTs?

Take a look at our EMT Terminology page for articles on EMT mnemonics and medical abbreviations.





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