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Searching the Literature: A Guide for Nurses : Step 3: Select Synonyms


It's likely that you will have to use synonyms to ensure that you have thoroughly explored the research on your question. At this stage, you will brainstorm synonyms, but the databases also give you good suggestions for alternate terms to use.

Natural Language vs. Database Language

Oftentimes, we employ commonly used words in our searches. Below is a chart representing just a few common medical terms and their corresponding "technical" terms. Look for those technical terms when searching databases & employ them in your Google searches too!


You can locate the "database language" in PubMed by searching your term in MeSH (it's a dropdown selection on the PubMed search bar) or by searching the CINAHL Headings in CINAHL (available on the blue bar at the top of each page.)

Natural Language vs. Database Language

Natural Language Database Language
Heart attack Myocardial infarction
Swelling Edema
Bruise Contusion
ACL Anterior Cruciate Ligament
Shingles Herpes zoster

Similar concepts (terms with similar meaning)

  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure

Alternate spellings or acronyms:

  • ACL or anterior cruciate ligament
  • Leukemia or Leukaemia
  • ​Handwashing or Hand washing

Umbrella terms & specific names:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, etc.

Tips for finding synonyms

  1. The Internet: Is your search term or concept called anything else? Look it up in an encyclopedia to find out. For example, in the Wikipedia entry for "hypertension", the synonym high blood pressure is quickly identified in the opening sentence. This is true for most Wikipedia entries for scientific and medical terminology. It is Wikipedia, so exercise caution when using this as a background reading source.
  2. Other background sources: You can also easily find synonyms in other background sources, including your lecture notes, as well as textbooks and print encyclopedias (yes! they still exist!) which you can find via the library catalog.
    1. Background sources can also help you find umbrella terms and specific terms, as well as provide you with the kind of contextual information on a topic that always comes in handy when you're searching!
  3. Use database subject headings: CINAHL is great for finding subject headings. If you run a search and find a good article, look at the subject terms listed by the database. Use those terms in subsequent searches.
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