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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Medical Myths Medical Myths

Anatomy 101: Know Your Body Parts

February 27, 2013

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Last reviewed February 27, 2013

When I first learned where the stomach really was, I was a bit surprised. I'd always thought it was just behind the "belly button" (technically, the umbilicus). In fact, it lies much higher than that, just between the lowermost ribs to the left and beneath the lower tip of the breastbone (the xiphoid) in the upper abdomen. As I learned more, more surprises followed.

Anatomy That Isn't

Consider a couple of "body parts" that do not correspond directly to actual anatomy:

  • Solar plexus — This term refers to the middle or upper abdomen that is most sensitive to injury, such as from a body blow during boxing or other contact sports. But, as my medical dictionary points out, this term is "not used technically." There is a nerve group called the "celiac plexus" in this area that lies behind the stomach and in front of the aorta, but it is rarely injured.
  • Groin — The term "groin pull" or "groin injury" is used often in sports reporting, but the term is not an anatomically useful or correct one since tendons, ligaments and the hip itself are usually the body parts under discussion. The term "groin" is best limited to describing the skin where the torso meets the leg, as in describing a rash. For example, intertrigo is a common cause of redness and itching in the groin region due to a fungal infection.

Anatomy Revisited

Consider also the body parts that do exist but are not exactly where you may have learned:

    • Hip — When I fell onto my "hip" playing basketball and noticed a bruise over the side of the upper leg, I was told I'd suffered a "hip pointer." In fact, I'd landed on my trochanteric bursa, which lies over the greater trochanter. This is the prominence over the side of the upper leg that is the first to make contact if you fall to the side. The actual hip joint is deeper in the body and located roughly behind the spot where your torso meets the leg (that is, just beneath the groin).
    • The stomach — As described above, the stomach lies much higher than most people assume.
    • The heart — Many people believe it is in the middle of the chest and shaped like a valentine heart; in fact, it is roughly the size of your fist and lies behind the left breast.
    • The lungs — These are smaller on the left side, which has only two sections, called lobes, rather than three as on the right. The smaller left side accommodates the heart.
    • The kidneys — Patients often describe their lower back pain as a reason they worry about kidney disease. The kidneys actually are not in the lower back at all, but reside just behind the lowermost ribs, which protect them.

The Bottom Line

I blame my sports exploits in grade school and high school for my learning terms and structures in the body I would later have to unlearn. The sources of this misinformation vary for different people: Friends and family, coaches, television and other media sources all contribute to the perpetuation of imprecise terms or misconceptions.

Perhaps it does not matter most of the time. If your favorite football player is "out with a groin pull," it probably matters little to you that he actually has tendonitis of the hip flexors. On the other hand, it may matter a great deal to the athlete or his or her trainer, since the precise problem may dictate a particular treatment. And it may be reassuring to know that your low back pain is unlikely to represent kidney trouble. It pays to check a reliable medical or anatomy book for more information about your favorite body parts. There's plenty to worry about without worrying about parts you don't have or that are not where your symptoms are.

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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