Using MeSH in PubMed

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This tutorial will teach you how to use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) in PubMed to find biomedical articles.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) indexes biomedical literature to make it easier for researchers and health care professionals to quickly locate the information they need.

This index to biomedical articles is known as MEDLINE and it is made freely available to the public online via PubMed.

Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH, are the list of vocabulary terms used to describe each article within MEDLINE. You can use these vocabulary terms to become a better PubMed searcher.


2 of 2The MeSH vocabulary is organized in a hierarchical structure. Indexers at NLM examine each article and assign the most specific MeSH terms possible to describe what the article is about. Generally, each article is assigned 5 to 15 MeSH terms.

The majority of article entries in PubMed will have MeSH terms assigned to them; however, more recent articles may not have their terms assigned to them yet. PubMed also includes some entries that are not indexed in MEDLINE, so you may occasionally run across an entry without a MeSH term.

Searching the MeSH Database

1 of 4When you are beginning a literature search in PubMed, it’s helpful to look up the appropriate MeSH terms for your keywords before you begin your search. Let’s try searching the MeSH database before searching PubMed.

Navigate to PubMed from the Lewis Library web page by selecting "PubMed" from the "Select a Database" dropdown menu.

selecting pubmed

You are now on the PubMed Search page. To search the MeSH database, locate the dropdown menu to the left of the search bar. Right now it should read “PubMed.” Select “MeSH” from the menu instead.

NCBI drop down menu with MeSH selected

Searching the MeSH Database

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Let’s say we’re interested in figuring out the appropriate MeSH term for cancer. With MeSH selected in the drop down menu, type “Cancer” into the search box and hit “search.”

Your search results page should be displaying about 375 entries in the MeSH database.

Select the 1st result, Neoplasms.

Searching the MeSH Database

3 of 4You should now be on the MeSH entry for Neoplasms.

MeSH entry for neoplasms

At the top, you’ll see a definition for the term and the year it was introduced to the MeSH hierarchy.

Scroll down to the bullet point list called “Entry Terms.” You should see Cancer, our original search term, on this list.

Entry terms are synonyms or closely related terms that are often used interchangeably for the preferred MeSH term.

Since we see “Cancer” on the list of entry terms, we now know that Neoplasms is the preferred term in MEDLINE for cancer.

Searching the MeSH Database

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Scroll back up to the top of the page and locate the Subheadings section of this record.

Subheadings are attached to MeSH terms and are used to describe a specific aspect of a concept. You will see different subheadings for different MeSH entries. You can use subheadings to further narrow your search within a concept.

Building a Search

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We are now going to build a PubMed search using this MeSH entry for Neoplasms.

Let’s say we’re interested in learning about the emotional and psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis on a patient. We can use subheadings and the PubMed Search Builder to search PubMed for that information.

Building a Search

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Select “psychology” from the list of subheadings and then locate the “PubMed Search Builder” box on the top right hand corner of the screen. With the psychology option select, click “Add to Search Builder.”

PubMed search builder

Now select “Search PubMed” to search the PubMed database for that concept.

Building a Search

3 of 3You have now run a search for all article entries in PubMed that discuss the psychology of cancer.

neoplasms/psychology PubMed Search

Consider narrowing your results using filters, as we discussed in the PubMed tutorial.

Select the first result on your list and to navigate to the full record view for that article.

Underneath the article's abstract, select the dropdown menu titled "Publication Types, MeSH Terms, Substance, Grant support."

You should see the full list of MeSH terms that have been applied to this article, including “Neoplasms/psychology."

Automatic Term Mapping

1 of 4You don’t need to go through the process of looking up a MeSH term every time you search in PubMed. PubMed uses a feature called Automatic Term Mapping to apply the appropriate MeSH term to your PubMed search.

Automatic Term Mapping

2 of 4Let’s try a search to see Automatic Term Mapping in action.

Scroll back up to the top of the page and clear out your PubMed search bar. Remove any filters you may have added from your previous search. Make sure “PubMed” is selected from the drop down menu.

Type “Shin splints AND physical therapy” into the search bar and hit search.

You should see a list of about 40 results.

Automatic Term Mapping

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At the top of the page, sort your results by "Most Recent."

On your search results page, take a look at the right hand side of the screen and locate the “Search details” box. This box shows you how the PubMed search algorithm interpreted your search.

Search details box for shin splints/physical therapy

Notice that the search string in the Search details box is much longer than the search we typed in. That’s because Automatic Term Mapping has been applied to our search terms.

PubMed automatically “mapped” our terms to their appropriate MeSH heading. Notice that it is searching for “medial tibial stress syndrome” as well as other entry terms for our keywords, without having to type any of it manually into the search box.

Automatic Term Mapping

4 of 4Sometimes Automatic Term Mapping can cause our search results to look differently than we anticipated. If you ever try a search in PubMed and don’t get the results you expected, take a look at the Search details box to see what terms are used on the back end and edit as necessary.


You don't need to be an expert in MeSH to search PubMed. Just think of MeSH headings as another tool in your toolkit for effective literature searching.

If you have any questions, please contact the Library Research Services Office at:

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