Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Getting Started with MeSH

Ever started searching for information but were not sure if you were using the official medical or health-related term?

For example, have you performed a search using the phrase "heart attack" and wondered what information may be missing because you didn't search for "myocardial infarction"?

MeSH is here to help!

What is MeSH?

The Medical Subjects Headings (MeSH) thesaurus is a controlled vocabulary produced by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that is used for indexing, cataloging, and searching for biomedical and health-related information and documents. Controlled vocabularies are standardized and/or organized arrangements of words or phrases that help to retrieve uniformly consistent results. 

Searching using MeSH headings is an available feature in many of our CSN Libraries databases, however, it is most frequently associated with the databases PubMed Central and MEDLINE.

One of the biggest advantages to using MeSH terms is that all MeSH terms are pre-defined and have synonyms included. MeSH is effective for searching for meaning, rather than only looking for where words appear in the text of the abstract.

Keywords vs. MeSH

Keywords Benefits of searching with MeSH                                                         
  • Efficient for quick searching
  • Beneficial when searching for new idea, technology, or concepts
  • Acronyms should be spelled out in your search
  • Effective for precise searching
  • Beneficial when searching established concepts
  • Contains synonyms and alternate spellings

An effective search should contain both keywords and MeSH terms because the most recent articles in some databases, including PubMed and MEDLINE, may not have MeSH terms assigned to them yet. Combining your MeSH terms with your keywords using the word OR between them will help you ensure that you are retrieving the most recent literature in your results. For example: 

  • "arrhythmia"[MeSH] OR arrhythmia

This search query would retrieve citations with the MeSH term arrhythmia and any citations where arrhythmia is mentioned in the title, abstract, or authors fields as a keyword term.

MeSH Trees

MeSH terms are related to each other in a hierarchical, or ranked order by subject category with more specific terms arranged beneath a broader term. The narrower term you use for your search, the more limited result you will find. If you find that your results are too broad or narrow, consider checking the MeSH record to see if you can find a term that is more specific or narrow in scope. The MeSH tree can be found at the bottom of every MeSH record.

Using Viral Meningitis as an example, below is an example of where it sits on the hierarchical tree in MeSH:

How to use MeSH in PubMed

PubMed is a human-curated database that uses MeSH terms to tag its articles, which means that an indexer at the National Library of Medicine reads all of its articles, consults the MeSH database to find a relevant MeSH term, and tags it to the article's record. You can use MeSH terms in your search query to help retrieve more relevant results.

This quick video tutorial from The National Library of Medicine shows how to perform subject searching in PubMed, including mapped MeSH terms

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Rebecca Blunk