Learning anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, pathology and other subjects in massage therapy school can be challenging for many students. It’s not that the information is all that difficult. The problem is that there is a TON of information to learn. With 206 bones, over 130 pairs of skeletal muscles (plus their origins, insertions and actions) and countless other tissues, organ processes, movements, pathologies, and massage techniques, there is an enormous body of knowledge that massage therapy students must learn. So anything that can help massage therapy students learn anatomy more quickly, and remember what they learn, is a big help.
What are memorization techniques and tricks for learning anatomy? Memorization techniques are strategies, tactics and tools that help someone process, encode, store and retrieve new information. Massage students studying anatomy often use memorization tactics such as mnemonics, flashcards, forming connections between concepts (linking), creating stories, repeated quizzing, distributed practice and review (spaced repetition), teaching others, drawing tables and diagrams, and creating mental images to improve understanding and retention of new information.
This article focuses on mnemonics to help massage therapy students learn anatomy. I’ve listed a collection of anatomy mnemonics below that any massage therapy student will find useful when preparing for their massage school exams or for the MBLEx in 2023.
Memorization tricks to remember nerves
The cranial nerves consist of 12 pairs of nerves that emerge directly from the brain and brainstem. These nerves are considered to be part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) because they are outside of the brain and spinal cord. Some of the cranial nerves are sensory (afferent) nerves, some are motor (efferent) nerves, and some of these are mixed nerves carry which sensory and motor fibers. Physicians often assess cranial nerves as part of a neurological assessment in response to suspected brain injury. One anatomy mnemonic to help remember the cranial nerves is: “Oh Oh Oh, To Touch And Feel Very Good Velvet, AH”.
- (I) Olfactory (Sensory)
- (II) Optic (Sensory)
- (III) Oculomotor (Motor)
- (IV) Trochlear (Motor)
- (V) Trigeminal (Both)
- (VI) Abducens (Motor)
- (VII) Facial (Both)
- (VIII) Vestibulocochlear (Sensory)
- (IX) Glossopharyngeal (Both)
- (X) Vagus (Both)
- (XI) Accessory (Motor)
- (XII) Hypoglossal (Motor)
There are various versions of this mnemonic. Here is another one that indicates whether the cranial nerve is sensory, motor, or both: “Some say marry money, but my brother says big brains matter more”. This is also indicated on the list above.
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Another part of the nervous system that is often required learning in anatomy classes, and can be difficult to remember is the brachial plexus. As the nerves leave the C5 through T1 levels of the spinal cord, they merge and divide several times to form the peripheral nerves of the upper extremities. There are 5 Roots, 3 Trunks, 6 Divisions, 3 Cords and 5 Branches (RTDCB). One mnemonics to help remember this is, “Ready To Drink Cold Beverages.”
Check out this post to learn more about types of mnemonics.
Mnemonics to remember bones
Learning the bones of the hands and feet can be difficult for massage therapy students to memorize. There are 27 bones in each hand and wrist, plus numerous intrinsic muscles and a variety of joint movements to remember. Here is a useful memorization trick to help recall the 8 carpal bones of the wrist. Starting with the proximal row on the thumb side: “She Likes To Play, Try To Catch Her”.
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An anatomy mnemonic to recall the tarsal bones of the foot and ankle, from proximal to distal, and medial to lateral, “Tiger Cubs Need MILC”.
- Medial cuneiform
- Intermediate cuneiform
- Lateral cuneiform
The skull contains the brain, and is made up of six cranial bones. Use this mnemonic to remember the first letter of each bone: “PEST OF 6”. The “6” is just to help you recall that there are 6 bones.
Another anatomy mnemonic that will help with recall of facial bones is, “Virgil can not make my pet zebra laugh.”
It is not likely that you will see any questions about these will be on the MBLEx (except maybe the mandible, maxilla or zygomatic bone). However, massage therapy students are likely to see some of these on a quizzes or tests at some point in during massage school.
Mnemonics to remember muscles
The erector spinae muscle group is composed of three postural muscles that help to maintain an erect spine when a person is standing or sitting. A memorization trick to help recall these three muscles of the back (from lateral to medial) is: “I Like Standing”. Our muscles of the torso tables is a handy review of the OIA of the back muscles.
A massage therapy student will almost certainly see questions about the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder (glenohumeral joint) in school and on the MBLEx. The well-known anatomy mnemonic “SITS”, is an acronym for the rotator cuff muscles. It also indicates the insertion order from superior to inferior on the greater tubercle of the humerus for the first 3 muscles (the subscapularis inserts on the lesser tubercle).
- Teres minor
The mnemonic, “Piece Goods Often Go On Quilts” can help you recall the 6 lateral rotator muscles of the hip, in their insertion order from superior to inferior. See our muscles tables to learn muscle origins, insertions and actions for lower extremity muscles.
- Gemellus superior
- Obturator internus
- Gemellus inferior
- Obturator externus
- Quadratus femoris
The area of tendon insertion on the proximal, anteromedial tibia is known as the Pes anserinus or “goose foot”. A mnemonic to recall the muscle that insert here is, “Say Grace before Tea” in order from anterior to posterior.
Use the following mnemonic to recall the three muscles involved in elbow flexion: “3B’s bend the elbow”. See our study guide: muscle tables for the upper extremity for helpful anatomy review.
The 3 palmar interossei muscles of the hand adduct the fingers, and the 4 dorsal interossei muscles abduct the fingers. Use the acronyms PAD & DAB to help recall which muscle group does what. This is not likely to be on the MBLEx, but may be covered on anatomy tests in some massage schools.
- Palmar interossei – Adduct
- Dorsal interossei – Abduct
Memorize muscle origins, insertions, actions and innervations for massage school or for the anatomy and kinesiology sections of the MBLEx exam with our Muscle Flashcards. All of our memberships (Gold, Silver, Bronze) include 115 muscle flashcards.
Mnemonics to recall other anatomy structures, positions and processes
An anatomy mnemonic to remember the heart valves in the order of blood flow through the valves is: “Try Pulling My Aorta”. Kind of silly, but it’s memorable. The mnemonic, “Try before you Buy” refers to the blood flowing through the tricuspid valve on the right side of the heart, and a bicuspid (aortic) valve on the left side of the heart.
- Tricuspid valve
- Pulmonary valve
- Mitral valve
- Aortic valve
The layers of the epidermis can be recalled from superficial to deep, using the mnemonic: “Come Let’s Get Sun Burned”.
- Stratum Corneum
- Stratum Lucidum
- Stratum Granulosum
- Stratum Spinosum
- Stratum Basale
The first letter of the structures at the massage endangerment site, also called area of caution, known as the femoral triangle spell “VAN”. These structures from medial to lateral are:
- Femoral Vein
- Femoral Artery
- Femoral Nerve
The first letters of the three structures that form the borders of the femoral triangle spell the word “SAIL”. The femoral triangle itself is shaped like a sail.
- Sartorius (forms the lateral border of the femoral triangle)
- Adductor longus (forms the medial border)
- Inguinal Ligament (forms the superior border)
You can remember the order of sections of the digestive tract by using the anatomy mnemonic, “Dow Jones Industrial Climbing Average Closing Stock Report”.
- Sigmoid colon
The tarsal tunnel is a canal on the medial aspect of the ankle, just distal to the medial malleolus. The “roof” of the tunnel is the flexor retinaculum. Contents of the tarsal tunnel from anterior to posterior can be remembered by using the mnemonic, “Tom, Dick, And Very Nervous Harry”
- Tibialis posterior
- Flexor digitorum longus
- Artery (posterior tibial artery)
- Vein (posterior tibial vein)
- Nerve (tibial)
- Flexor hallucis longus
Mnemonics for first aid and massage client safety
Remember the steps of first aid to treat a traumatic injury such as an ankle sprain by using the mnemonic, “RICE“. Some add a “P” to it to form the mnemonic “PRICE“.
As massage therapists, visual assessment is an ongoing process. Every practitioner should be aware of the how to identify abnormal skin lesions that may require a referral to the client’s primary care physician or dermatologist. You can remember the warning signs by the mnemonic “ABCDE” of melanoma.
When someone passes out for an unknown reason, or when CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is required, it can be a stressful experience for everyone. The mnemonic “ABC” can help you remember what to do, in order.
- Circulation/Compressions/Call for help
This list of memorization tricks can help you to remember your anatomy for your next test, whether in massage school or if you’re preparing for the MBLEx. Memory tools like the mnemonics listed in this article are a great way to increase long-term retention of anatomy and other information.