Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Banner image with CORE Library logo



Subject headings are words or short phrases that are added to the records of every reference in the database. Subject headings use a ‘controlled language’, meaning there is only one word or phrase used to describe a specific concept. In theory, this means that every reference discussing melanoma will have the ‘melanoma’ subject heading. Searching using subject headings will retrieve references on a topic regardless of the wording used by individual authors.

So how do you know which term is the correct one to use?

The CINAHL Headings feature of the databases allows you to find out which term the database "prefers," as well as construct a search from those preferred terms and subheadings. You can also get a sense of where your concept fits in with other medical concepts. If you are searching for something but keep getting fewer results than you think you ought to, try using the CINAHL Headings to make sure you're using the correct terminology.

To access this feature, you must be in the CINAHL database specifically.  You can get to the individual database by using the Research tab on the library navigation bar, and then selecting Databases.  You can also get to it through the Search by Database  link on any search results page. 

Once inside CINAHL, click on CINAHL Headings from the menu at the top of the CINAHL home screen:

The subject headings are linked at the top of the CINAHL database screen.

On the search screen, type in your search term. Leave the bubble on Relevancy Ranked, and hit 'Browse.' In this example, we want to see if cerebrovascular accident is the term we should use to look for articles on stroke:

Type your word into the search box; leave Relevancy Ranked checked.

If your term is not in the controlled vocabulary, your results will tell you to Use: [preferred term], instead. In this case, we find that stroke, not cerebrovascular accident, is the preferred term.  

Now that you know the preferred term for the database, you can construct a search right from the Headings screen by following these steps:

1. Select the checkbox for the term or terms you'd like to search.

2. A menu of subheadings will appear to the right; these are specific aspects of the main term that you might like to focus on. Select one or more subheadings.

3. Click on the green Search Database button on the right side of the screen.

Select your term and use the green "Search Database" button to begin.