How to memorize origins and insertions

Last night I got a question about how to memorize origins and insertions for anatomy.  My comment quickly turned into a book, so I figured I’d make it a post and call it a day.  Skip to the double astericks** if anatomy bores you.

You’re right, mnemonics don’t really work for muscle attachments -too many of them.  It demands a different strategy – here’s what I believe in:

1.  First, make a table.  I use 5 columns across the top of the page for “muscle name” “origin” “insertion” “action” and “innervation”.  If you’re feeling fancy, you can color-code, but it’s not necessary. Once everything you need to know is in one place for easy reference, memorizing it starts to seem possible – and you won’t be wasting time flipping pages around.

my favorite part is how Alex seems unconcerned about it.  He would

These folks have clearly just found out there are 600 muscles in the human body and they have to know at least 5 things about each one.

2.  Prioritize.  First, learn just the bone of attachment for each muscle. Then the process/part of the bone.  Then any absurdly specific details your professor wants you to know about that process. It’s okay if you don’t finish the 3rd pass – I sure didn’t – but you’d be surprised by how much further you’ll be ahead of everyone if you start each unit by memorizing what bones the muscles attach to.

What you want to avoid is trying to memorize the long and detailed version for each muscle before moving onto the next.  It’s all too easy for this to take so long that you run out of time.*  If you start with a quick pass of bones, then add detail, you’ll at least know enough about each muscle to guarantee an intelligent guess.

3.  Try memorizing by action. For example, most of the medial rotators of the arm attach to the intertubercular groove.  (Not the “floor of the” or “the lateral lip of the” or, god forbid, the “lateral 3/4 of the inner side of the”- at least not yet.  Those are low-yield details that you can hammer into your brain with flashcards the day before a test if you have time).  So, that’s great – but subscapularis is the exception.  How to remember subscapularis?  Well, I remember that the lateral rotators attach to the greater tubercle (because I made a list of where the lateral rotators attached)- so since the subscap is a medial rotator, by elimination I know it must attach to the lesser tubercle.

Also?  Fictional.

Okay, so this guy is probably capable of memorizing everything on the 1st try. But he also "aced his MCATs" and "cleverly has no personal life". So.

4.  Try memorizing by common insertion points. Making a list of which muscles attach at a given location (rather than the reverse) and doing some rudimentary memorization of that list can speed things up quite a bit.  (Only worth doing with common insertion points – greater trochanter, ASIS, etc.)  For example – the coronoid process of the ulna.  What attaches there?  The brachialis and a bunch of forearm muscles.  What do they have in common?  They’re all flexors – FDP, FDS, and FDP longus flex digits, while Pronator Teres and brachialis flex the elbow.

Cool.  Now I have two ways of potentially remembering this information during the test.  If I’ve forgotten Pronator Teres’ attachments, but I remember it’s a flexor – then I might remember that most flexors attach to the coronoid process.  If I’ve remembered its attachments but forgotten its secondary action, then I can just remember “hey, everything attached to the coronoid process is a flexor.  It must flex.”

“Too long, didn’t read” version: Get all the info down in one place and start by memorizing everything according to general attachments only.  Then group the info in various ways by writing simple lists, thereby increasing the number of ways you can remember it on the test.

Anyone else have any anatomy advice?

* For example, once you know that the brachialis attaches to the ulna (and not the radius)  - then you can start adding “coronoid process and tuberosity of the ulna” to your memory.  Otherwise, if you draw a partial blank on test day, it’s anyone’s guess what part of that sentence you might remember – maybe you’ll only remember “tuberosity”.  Not as helpful as “ulna”.
** Fun fact:  Shania Twain’s real name is Eileen Edwards.  If that doesn’t surprise you, then you should know that Tina Turner’s real name was Anna Bullock, and Tori Amos was really named Myra.  Hopefully this entry was now not a total waste of your time.
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20 thoughts on “How to memorize origins and insertions

  1. I made charts. And flashcards. It was painfully boring to memorize, but worked. Now that I’m starting to think about the boards, it’s clear that all those origins and insertions were useless information- the important thing is what nerve innervates the muscle, what happens when that nerve gets damaged, and HOW that nerve get damaged. so yea you have to memorize this crap, but feel free to forget it right after the test. unless you go into ortho or physiatry. then you might need it.

  2. The most helpful thing I did was print out a bunch of sketches of the bones of each limb (ie, the whole forelimb from scapula to distal phalanges, etc) and the axial skeleton, and glued each picture on an index card. Then I grouped muscles by function, and used colored pencils to draw each muscle (just a line from origin to insertion) onto the sketch. So I had a color-coded flashcard of forelimb extensors, one for forelimb flexors, etc.

    I’m a visual learner, and could sit for HOURS with a table without remembering more than 4 or 5 pieces of information from it. But I could recall my sketch during the exam and look at the origin and insertion in my head, which I found very helpful.

  3. This is the problem with doctors nowadays. They don’t want to do any hands-on work to deal with pain, the vast majority of which is myofascial in origin. Learning this stuff would mean you wouldn’t have to prescribe as many drugs, if you knew how to deal with people’s pain.

  4. Pingback: Muscle memorization | Janineandperry

  5. Paul, you could not be more right. I recently met an ortho who diagnosed me manual exam, performed surgery as a result and freed me from 12 years of excruciating pain. 6 months earlier I was tod by another ortoh who looked at x-rays that there was nothing that could be done and that I would never be an ‘A’ again, not even a ‘B+’ and it would takes months and months to maybe be a ‘B’. Thank God for students who go the extra mile and study to help people and not just to pass tests. You are of the few extraordinary Few.

    • Thanks Paul and Motivateme, have a very similar experience, is there any chance you can remember who your ortho was and where the surgery took place?

  6. Excellent website you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew
    of any forums that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get opinions from other experienced people that
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    Bless you!

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