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PubMed: The Basics: Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)

A how-to guide on using and searching the New PubMed

Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)

Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) are terms that PubMed uses to tag articles with. PubMed is a human-curated database, meaning that all articles in PubMed have been read by an indexer at the National Library of Medicine. Once they have finished reading an article, they consult the MeSH database to find a relevant MeSH term and tag it to the article's record. You can use MeSH terms in your search query to help retrieve more relevant results.

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. For example, when we search PubMed for "weight lifting", do we mean the competitive sport or in the context of physical therapy? And how many different ways can we articulate this concept? Below is an example of how a MeSH term is defined and the synonyms it may include.

MeSH Term: Resistance Training
Definition A type of strength-building exercise program that requires the body muscle to exert a force against some form of resistance, such as weight, stretch bands, water, or immovable objects. Resistance exercise is a combination of static and dynamic contractions involving shortening and lengthening of skeletal muscles
Entry Terms (Synonyms) Strength training, weight-lifting strengthening program(s), weight lifting exercise program(s), weight bearing exercise program(s), ...

View the entire MeSH record for Resistance Training in PubMed.

Keywords vs. MeSH

Keywords MeSH
  • Good for quick searching
  • Good for new technology, ideas, concepts
  • Spell out acronyms in your search
  • Good for precise searching
  • Good for established concepts
  • Contains synonyms and alternate spellings

Keep in mind that you ideally want to use both keywords and MeSH terms in your search. The most recent articles in PubMed do not have MeSH terms attached to them yet. To ensure that you are getting the most recent literature within your results, combine your MeSH terms with keywords using the boolean operator OR. For example:

  • "Obesity"[MeSH] OR obesity

This search query will bring back citations with the MeSH term obesity, as well as any citations where obesity 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 order. If you find that your results are too broad or narrow, check 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.


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