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Nursing Research Guide: CINAHL Subject Headings

CINAHL Subject Headings

CINAHL Headings - see if there are any relevant search terms for you to use.

The CINAHL Headings list (controlled vocabulary or thesaurus) includes 15,000+ terms. In many cases, the most efficient way to search CINAHL is to use these headings that have been assigned to related articles by the CINAHL indexers. Not all concepts have a CINAHL Heading assigned to them. You will see these called Subjects, Subject: Major Heading, Major Subjects, and Minor Subjects in the results and narrowing features.

A definition from Ebsco: These Headings follow the structure of the Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH, used in PubMed by the National Library of Medicine. This structure has been used to develop the CINAHL subject headings which reflect the terminology used by nursing and allied health professionals.

For more information see:

  • Using CINAHL/MeSH Headings. This 3 minute and 33 seconds flash video tutorial, from the Ebsco company that owns CINAHL. This is a useful illustration of how to search for CINAHL Headings. The Search History feature advice is good too.
  • CINAHL Subject Headings page from the UW Health Sciences Library.

Steps to search:

Step 1: Please Note: Searching with CINAHL Headings will remove any limits you have placed on your search, and you can reapply them after you search.

Step 2: Click "CINAHL Headings" at the top of the page, as illustrated below.

Step 3: Type your search word(s) in the search box and click "Browse," as illustrated below:

CINAHL Headings Browse Box

Step 4:  If available, click the icon under the Scope column to see a definition of the subject heading, referred to as the “scope note.”

Step 5: Select the desired subject heading by checking the box next to it. This will also display the subheadings associated with the subject heading.


(Another screen shot illustration is available in the “CINAHL Headings” box).

  • (Optional) Click on the Subject Heading to see term in the hierarchical view of subject heading terms.
  • Note: the options to make the subject heading a Major Concept in the article, or to Explode results so that all narrower subject headings are searched as well.

Step 6: To search for additional subject headings, at the bottom of your results page by click on the "Browse Additional Terms" link.  Your previous search will be retained. See the image below that illustrates this:

Step 7: Consider if you want to combine the words you have selected with "and" or "or". Searching with "and" will provide more specific results. Searching with "or" will provide you with more results, but will provide results with articles that may contain only one of the CINAHL Headings you selected. More information about searching with "and" or "or" in CINAHL is located online at http://guides.lib.uw.edu/bothell/BooleanSearching.

Click on the Search Database button.

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