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Guide to searching PubMed



  • Develop your research topic by asking a good question.  Write your question in a complete sentence, being as specific as possible: 
    • Will continuous passive motion therapy (CPM therapy) following knee replacement help achieve optimal range of motion?
  • A well-built question usually has four parts and uses PICO:
              P I C O                                 Example             
 Patient  Problem  Population  Patients with Knee Replacements
 Intervention  CPM
 Comparison  No CPM
 Outcome  Optimal range of motion


Identify Search Terms

  • As shown above, use PICO to develop, clarify and finally, condense your question into major concepts:  Knee replacement, CPM, range of motion.
  • Search for keywords and synonyms for your concepts: ROM, "knee arthroplasty", TKR, "continuous passive motion";
  • Search for MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)  for your concepts;
  • If acronyms are used such as 'CPM' also search the full-name in quotes: "continuous passive motion". 


Choose Sources

  • Search in the right sources.  Your needs will determine the best database to use. PubMed or MEDLINE are excellent first choices for most clinical research topics.  If you're looking for best evidence, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews is an excellent choice.  Other good sources to check include CINAHL and HealthSource
  • Limit your results. You can often limit your search by age groups, gender, type of article, language, etc.

Adapted from Modesto Junior College and University of Canberra.

Get Full-Text


Searching Medical Literature

There are two basic types of search queries  Keyword and Controlled Vocabulary (MeSH).

Keyword Searches

  • Allows you to enter a search term that you believe best describes the term as used in an information source. While this search strategy will retrieve what you've entered, you also need to search using synonyms and variations of the search term to make sure that you have retrieved all of the relevant records.
  • For example, if you are looking for information on "heart attack" using a textword search, you also need to search using the terms "heart attacks," "myocardial infarction," "myocardial infarctions" and so on.

Subject Searches (Controlled Vocabulary, MeSH) 

  • Controlled vocabularies are standardized, hierarchical lists designated to represent the major subject concepts and conditions contained within a database. They change from database to database. The hierarchical nature of the lists benefits search strategies by allowing broad concepts to be narrowed in a manner that stays consistent within that framework.  MeSH, or Medical Subject Headings, are used in MEDLINE and PubMed.
  • Before an item is added to a database or catalog, its subject matter is determined. Specific terms that apply to the item are chosen from a pre-determined vocabulary, no matter what terminology the author used within the item. This way, there is a consistent method for retrieving the same information concepts even though different terminology or keywords have been used. The listing is standardized and somewhat predictable. For example, the term "heart attack" is always listed as "myocardial infarction" within a controlled vocabulary structure such as MeSH (Medical Subject Headings).

Adapted from Valpariaso University.


The Basics: Simple Searching & Viewing Results

For a basic keyword search, type the word or words you are looking for into the search box, and click Search. PubMed will suggest phrases that are related to the words you're entering.  The next page will show your search results.

Set Filters 

Use the filters on the left sidebar to narrow down your results by specifying different categories such as language, type of article, age, gender, etc.  


Change Display Settings

Click the Display Option button to change display settings.  Here you can change the citation display to summary or abstract, how citations should be sorted (best match, most recent or publication date), and how many citations should show on the page (10, 20, 50, 100, 200).  To permanently set your display settings, create a My NCBI account.  Learn more about My NCBI here.


Full-Text.   Email.   Save.   Export to Zotero.   Print.

Full-Text.  Make sure to access PubMed from the library's database list: Doing so will allow you to connect to LVC's full-text.  After you've run your search, click on the article title. The    icon will lead you to LVC's full-text; there may also be other full-text icons.

Email.  Email results to yourself with the Email button.  If you access PubMed through LVC's database listing, you'll need to create an NLM account for email to work (otherwise, the CAPTA box will give you an ERROR for site owner: Invalid domain for site key error). 



Save. Save your marked results by using the save button.  Send To allows you to save your marked items to a clipboard, or send them to Bibliography or Collections (you'll need an NLM Account to do that).

Export to Zotero. To send citations to a citation management tool (like Zotero), choose Send To, Citation Manager.  Push that downloaded file to your desktop. In Zotero, choose File, Import, and choose the file from your desktop. Zotero will import those citations and create a new folder for them.

Print. To print your citations, select Print from your Internet's browser window when you're looking at your saved Clipboard items.  The Clipboard link is found underneath the Search Box.


PubMed will format your citations for you.  Click on the article title.  The Cite button is found on the full record.  After you click that button, you'll be given several different style choices (AMA, APA, MLA, NLM).


Adapted from UNC Health Sciences Library.