What Do Distal and Proximal Mean? «

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What Do Distal and Proximal Mean?

Distal means farthest away, and proximal means closest to. In the picture, the left side of the wound (represented as being closed with duct tape) is distal to the heart, and the right side is proximal to the heart.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

In medical terminology, distal and proximal, or distally and proximally, describe anatomical locations.

Proximal means closest to, and distal means farthest away.

With reference to a wound on an arm, distal to the wound would be past the wound toward the fingers. Proximal to the wound would be from the wound toward the shoulder.

On the leg, the toes are the most distal, the hip the most proximal.

The knee is proximal to the ankle; the elbow is proximal to the wrist. Get it?

With reference to blood vessels, distal would be furthest from the heart. Proximal closest.

If it’s not clear, please ask in the comments section below.

  • Edward Berry

    There is an inconsistency in the use of “proximal to” in the figure legend above. “Proximal to” the wound means closer (to the heart) than the wound. But then the right side of the wound is “proximal to” the heart” must mean closer to the heart than the heart, which is nonsense. Proximal and distal are directions, like north and south, so “A is proximal to B” (meaning A is closer to the center than B) implies “B is distal to A” meaning B is farther from the center than A. The distal edge of the wound is distal to the proximal edge, and the proximal edge is proximal to the distal edge, but don’t say they are proximal or distal to the heart. As in the old spiritual, “the foot-bone is distal to the shin-bone, and the shin-bone is distal to the thighbone, etc, etc,”

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  • Magdy

    is it right that the knee is distal to the thigh and the thigh is proximal to the knee ?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      That is correct.

  • David

    Regarding veins (that return blood to the heart) it doesn´t feel right to say that a portion of a vein is proximal when its actually downstream

  • Leelee Nikravesh

    Hi, I’m a first term Dental student and I missed my first anatomy session :(. So what I understand so far is that for example: The elbow is proximal to the wrist= the elbow is closer (to the trunk) than the wrist. Is this right? I am seriously freaking out over this.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Hey, you’ll get it. And, yes, the elbow is proximal to the wrist.

      • Leelee Nikravesh

        Oh thank you thank you thank you! I think I got it!

  • Michelle

    While deep-sea fishing, Shamara accidentally hooked herself. Her injury is on the anterior surface (front of the body), superior to her foot (above her foot), inferior to her hip (below her hip), distal to her ankle (farther from the origin of the body part or point of attachment; farther away from the body), and proximal to her hip (closer to the origin of the body part or point of attachment; closer to the body)

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  • R3D3Y3K1K1

    These two terms are used to define the relevance and proximity of the wound and heart. For example proximal is always between the wound and heart while distal is going to be after the heart and wound

    • R3D3Y3K1K1

      To refine distal is on the furthest side of the wound from the heart while proximal is on the closer side of the wound to the heart

      • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH


  • Jennifer

    When discussing cross clamping of the aorta for example above the aortic valve, but below the innominate artery, is the innominate artery proximal or distal to the clamp? Thank you

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Unless there’s something I don’t know about how a surgeon would orient that, I would think the innominate artery would be distal to the clamp.

  • Saberina

    on what basis are the proximal convoluted tubule and the distal convoluted tubule named so? i mean, both seem to be on the same position, so what is the reference point?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I assume it’s proximal distal to the junction with the artery, but that’s just a guess.