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CINAHL Searching

Best practices on searching the CINAHL Complete database.

CINAHL Articles & FAQs

Subject Headings

Q. Where does EBSCO get the CINAHL subject headings from?

The CINAHL subject headings are based on the MeSH headings, with additional specific nursing and allied health headings added as appropriate. Each year, the headings are updated and revised relative to terminology needed in these fields. In addition, new terms from MeSH may be added as well.

Q. How many terms are in the CINAHL subject headings?

The number terms in the CINAHL subject headings are as follows:

  • Total Number of Headings 16,015
  • Total Number of Topical Subheadings 77
  • Total Number of Tertiary Headings 330
  • See References for the Headings 45,281

Q. How often are CINAHL subject headings updated?

CINAHL headings are updated on annual basis toward the end of the calendar year. This means that new headings may be added and applied to records in the CINAHL databases. At this time, scope notes and history notes may be adjusted as well.

Q. How does the CINAHL team assign major and minor subject headings for CINAHL products?

The title, abstract and the full article are reviewed by the indexer to determine what the article is about. Once the topic is determined (either about a disease, procedure, concept, issue, etc.) a further determination is made as to what specific area of the topic is covered (specific type of therapy, diagnosis, etc.). The indexer will then decide which specific headings to use to cover the topic and further qualify those headings with limits like subheadings such as nursing, therapy, manpower, etc., to outline the specific area of the topic being discussed. The indexer will include age groups to indicate if an age group is part of the main discussion (in adolescence, or even geographic area if that is important in the article, e.g. United States).

The indexer will assign as many headings as necessary to cover the full topic. These are assigned as "major" headings.

The article then is evaluated in the same way to see if side topics or side issues outside of the main topic are covered and headings are selected as above to cover these. They are assigned as minor headings.

If the topic covers three or more specific areas of the main topic, then additional headings will become minor headings. For example, if an article on asthma covers diet therapy, surgery, and drug therapy, then the heading asthma-therapy will be assigned as a major heading and asthma-diet therapy, asthma-drug therapy and asthma-surgery will be assigned as minor headings.

Also in research studies all research methodology terms indicating the type of research undertaken (e.g. qualitative study, cohort study, clinical trial, odds ratio etc.) are also assigned as minor headings. In a research study the population, age group and geographic area are assigned as minor headings.

(find more answers at the link above)

Tertiary Headings

Q. What are CINAHL Tertiary headings?

Tertiary headings are used to indicate an age group or geographics. These headings are added when the age group or geographic area is key to the topic under discussion. The tertiary headings can be linked directly to CINAHL subject headings or to the end of a subject heading/subheading combination.

Some examples include the following:

  1. After Care - Evaluation - Europe where "Europe" is the tertiary heading.

  2. Substance abuse - therapy - In Adolescence where "In Adolescence" is the tertiary heading.

  3. Rehabilitation Nursing - United Kingdom - where "United Kingdom" is the tertiary heading.

  4. Exercise - In Pregnancy - where "In Pregnancy" is the tertiary heading.

See the following linked spreadsheet for a list of these tertiary headings in the CINAHL database products.


Q. How can I access tertiary headings on CINAHL products?

There are a couple ways you can access the tertiary headings in CINAHL databases.

  1. When you limit your search to a specific age group, tertiary headings may be found in your result set. For example, “Influenza – In Infancy and Childhood” where “In Infancy and Childhood” is a tertiary heading.

  2. When you search the subject headings fields, you may retrieve results wherein a tertiary heading is applied. For example, “Analgesics – Therapeutic Use – In Pregnancy” where “In Pregnancy” is a tertiary heading.

In either case, you can click on the tertiary heading from the record to find more records which have this same tertiary heading.

Q. When searching the CINAHL products by a subject heading that includes a tertiary heading, how do I construct my search?

In order to search for a subject heading that includes a tertiary heading, you must remove the dash from the heading. For example, the subject heading “Health Beliefs – In Pregnancy” should be written as “Health Benefits In Pregnancy” when constructing your search. The search expression is not case sensitive.

  • To search for records containing the heading as a Major Subject, apply the field code MM before the heading. For example, MM “Health Beliefs In Pregnancy.”

  • To search for records containing the subject heading as a Major or Minor Subject, apply the field code MH. For example, MH “Health Beliefs In Pregnancy.”