Is Anatomy Hard? (Why It Causes a Lot of Headaches)

Anatomy is hard because so much of it requires brute force memorization. The false confidence having a body might give you, especially if you look at it as a “cheat sheet”, won’t help you either. So much of the subject is unseen, microscropic and hidden beneath layers of tissue.

Despite it being hard however it’s also one of the most fun subjects you’ll encounter. You get to know where each part of your body is, as well as understand why it’s important. You’ll also come to appreciate the complexity of yourself in a whole new light too!

But that’s not to say it will be easy. The anatomy exam syllabus I had in med school was a list of 400 topics long for example. So imagine having to synthesize all that and still know each area well enough to write a detailed essay.

Hardly childs play.

What Are The Biggest Challenges in Anatomy?

Here are the biggest challenges the way I see it:

  • Huge amount of information: it’s not just muscles, it’s bones, joints, nerves, vessels, organs, anastomoses and much more
  • Requires the memorization of a lot of lists: most of the time these lists are made up of very similar looking structures that are hard to differentiate. You’ll see what I mean when you get to the brachial plexus.
  • Difficulty visualising certain regions in 3D: especially as we normally only see bodies from one perspective with our own eyes
  • Requires a whole new language: terminology to describe locations and what you see (anterior, inferior, superior etc)
  • Lab work: dissecting cadavers and all the challenges that go with handling scalpels, tweezers etc
  • Teaching styles: not all anatomy teachers are equal
  • Curriculum style: system based learning tackling one organ or region at a time may be less effective than a broad overview
  • Clinical relevance: most anatomy courses like you to know as much about the body as possible, but not so much its clinical relevance. Without knowing the relevance though it’s quite difficult to stay memorize or stay motivated.

Each of these challenges carry their own separate problems too. For most students faced with a couple of these things however, the struggle of anatomy suddenly becomes real. Even more so if you’re on a tight schedule of a mere couple of months.

Even anatomists themselves don’t rush their studies of the subject. The absolute beast that it is.

Which Is Harder Anatomy Or Physiology?

I’ve written before how I consider physiology to be one of the toughest subjects on a medical or science-based curriculum. I still stand by that opinion.

Personally I’ll take the brute force memorization of anatomy over the applied math and physics (even though there’s little of it) of physiology every day of the week. I’m just not at all comfortable with the latter – as readers of this article will well know.

Objectively speaking though, the two subjects are usually taught together rather than compared. And this makes sense; anatomy identifies the object and physiology tells you how it works.

Oftentimes though, as I feel it is in anatomy, pointing to things is a lot easier than explaining them.

Even if there is seemingly thousands of things you could point at!

Answering which is more difficult however, is entirely dependent on you and where you’re learning either subject. At my med school for example, which follows a traditional curriculum, both had separate faculties and exams to go with them. Let’s just say the physiologists took things a lot lighter.

What To Do If You Find Anatomy Hard

I think the best way to get over problems in anatomy is to find great resources. Not only will these help break down and simplify the subject for you but they’ll also know the common pitfalls that could trip you up. Thus helping you avoid them and saving you confusion.

I’ve shared some particular great and free web resources for learning anatomy here.

Aside from this, it’s also really important to find a good teacher. Somone who explains things in a way you can immediately grasp it. Without adding layers of complexity that only distract you from the main point.

There’s also a bunch of these avaialble on the internet that teach anatomy for free too.

Finally, here are some extra considerations:

  • Memorization: consider using flashcards to get a good general overview of each organ system first. Flashcards will help build your long-term memory and make you much more comfortable with anatomy moving forward. Netters cards, as mentioned in my recommendations, worked like a charm for me.
  • Spend time with cadavers: learning to pick out structures on a real body, rather than a 3D training model or picture in a book, is a very different experience. You need to learn to get comfortable with them to better recognise how vessels look and feel (they’re not colored like in the books). Anatomy practical is all about this.
  • Persevere: anatomy is just about regular exposure, familiarity and not giving up. If you can resist the urge to quit you will get it. Everythign eventually clicks into place.

Final Thoughts

Yes anatomy is hard but, as it is for a lot of core science subjects, it’s no way unsurmountable. It might require more time and dedication than most – and a lot of revision to get things ingrained – but eventually you’ll see results.

Taking the time to learn it well now is time well spent. No matter if you’re a med student or not.

Image Credit: @coolmilo at Unsplash