Back to the basics…

Ever hear of the saying “The masters do the basics well”?  I’ve certainly heard it quite a bit over the years.  However, have you ever thought… ‘well, what are the basics?’

To me, the basics have to start with anatomy.  We’ve all heard it, “you’ve got to know  your anatomy!”  If there is ever a common theme of all the expert clinicians that I have ever taken a course from, met personally, or heard speak… it is this one.  Several points could be made about this, but one of the biggest reasons for knowing your anatomy well is that it helps your clinical reasoning.

For example, if you know your anatomy well enough, you could differentially diagnose the “carpal tunnel syndrome” patient that was referred to your clinic with an actual C7 radiculopathy; or recognizing the signs or symptoms of a basic posterolateral disc protrusion and prescribing McKenzie passive extension exercises (which will argubaly benefit them the most in the long run) at the initial visit; or perhaps even more important, understanding that the patient in front of you is not demonstrating a usual musculoskeletal presentation, and you are able to recognize this quickly and refer them back to their physician!

Please don’t misinterpret this post as lecturing readers as if I have a vast amount of knowledge of anatomy.  I will be the first to tell you that I am no expert in it.  However, I can say that I have a decent knowledge of anatomy.  Also, I can tell you some of the habits that “experts” have in our field, so that hopefully you can be inspired to incorporate them into your own life.

First, everyone reading this post should own a Gray’s Anatomy.  I do NOT mean the Gray’s Anatomy that is in some special collector’s packaging and is sold for $30 down at the local Barnes & Noble.  That is an old version (the last American version made actually, circa mid-1910s) and is obviously outdated.  No, the version I’m referring to is the British edition.  It is in it’s 41st edition at this point and can be found here (  If you only have one anatomy book… this is the bible.  While we are on the subject of books, I much prefer the Atlas of Anatomy by Theime over Netter’s.  The pictures, information, and clinical pearls are much more helpful to me.  You can find the latest edition of that book here (

The second thing I’ve learned from those much smarter than myself is that they study anatomy every week, about two to three hours each week.  For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s less than 30 minutes per day… doesn’t seem so daunting of a task now, does it?

Third, they usually subscribe to multiple journals, or check the content of their favorite journals and have ways to access articles.  If you are wondering how to get access to articles for cheap, go down to your local library for goodness sakes and start there.  If you live near a Universtiy… even better!  If not, most alumni associations from our graduate schools have some sort of perk where they can get you articles pretty easily (usually they charge a small fee like $5 per article though).  Not too bad if you REALLY want to check out something important.

Fourth, if they run into something that is puzzling them in the clinic… they go back to their anatomy books!  Or, they search things out on journal search engines (remember Pubmed from school?).  This may not be too earth-shattering as I’m sure a lot of us do this, but how many of us actually go back to look into anatomy texts and read information versus going to look at an atlas because it’s easier to just see a picture?  I know I’ve certainly been guilty of this one!

Lastly, the great clinicians I’ve met so far are always thinking about what the anatomy of a given individual means FUNCTIONALLY.  As an example, it’s of little use to know the origin/insertion of a muscle if you don’t understand it’s true function… let alone how to properly rehabilitate it.  Take the hip abductors… is their main function to move the leg away from midline in an open-chain (in the coronal plane)?  Many clinicians give patients sidelying hip abduction exercises, or even standing hip abduction exercises to work this muscle.  That may certainly help improve the strength of it, if the patient can do it correctly.  However, wouldn’t it make more sense that these muscles function in weight-bearing?  Therefore, wouldn’t it make more sense to exercise it in weight-bearing through something like eccentric hip abduction?  I didn’t figure this out on my own, but had to learn that from a mentor, but it has certainly changed how I think since then!

I know that most of you reading this post have already agreed with me that our knowledge of anatomy is paramount and that we could (and should) ALWAYS learn more.  However, my purpose in bringing this up is to make suggestions for ways to achieve that if you haven’t already thought about it.  Or, if you are a new clinician fresh out of school beginning to feel overwhelmed by the patients you are seeing.  Again, I am no expert in anatomy… yet.  But I have learned how to better myself.  The rest is just putting in the work to read, listen, and learn.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any suggestions that I have not mentioned?  Would love to hear from you!


– Matt

3 Comments on “Back to the basics…

  1. Pingback: Back to the basics… again – manual therapy

  2. Thank you Angelo! I have a picture from my Gray’s Anatomy of the axilla with the arm elevated, but I think I will have to put it on another post because I don’t know if I can include it here.

    The benefits of having a Gray’s Anatomy are the wealth of information within it regarding anything within the human body. Most apps will only describe origin/insertion of muscles and nerve supplies, but that’s about it. Gray’s goes into so much fine detail of every layer of tissue from the skin down to the bone (and within). It also has information about pathologies in each area as well to help with clinical info. So, exceptional detail would be the biggest benefit I would say. I believe it would be very difficult to find ONE book that covers as much detail as it does (but if anyone knows of something better… please let us all know!).

    In terms of nerve tunnels, there are a couple of books that I personally own and would recommend. The first is “Tunnel Syndromes: Peripheral Nerve Compression Syndromes” by Pecina. The second is “Manual Therapy for the Peripheral Nerves” by Barral and Croibier.



  3. Nice blog Matt! Curious if the anatomy book you recommended have good views of the axilla region with arm elevated?

    What benefits are there to having this resource if I already have the Visible Body App?

    Lastly… know of any great references for nerve tunnels?

    Liked by 1 person

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