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CINAHL: CINAHL Headings and combining sets

CINAHL Headings


CINAHL Subject Headings is a controlled vocabulary thesaurus.  Each bibliographic reference in the database is associated with a set of subject terms that are assigned to describe the content of an article. Using CINAHL Headings searches can be made more effectively.


Click CINAHL Headings at the top of the page. To find a subject heading, type your term in the search box and click Browse.

 The term Ambulatory Surgery is written in the search field of CINAHL Subject Headings. Then Browse button is selected.


Select the desired subject heading by checking the box next to it. Click on the Subject Heading (the blue link) to see the term in the hierarchical view of subject heading terms. Click Search Database to run the search.

Term search provides a list of terms related to the topic. In the picture, the term "Ambulatory Care Nursing" has been selected.

Subheadings, Explode, Major Concept


Subheadings: Once you select a subject heading, you are given the option to select subheadings from a blue menu to the right of the list of subject headings. Selecting a subheading will restrict your results to those that focus on a specific aspect of your topic.

  • For example, you might select the subject heading "Migraine" and then select subheading "Diagnosis (DI)". Hereby you would find articles related to diagnosing migraine.
  • Note! Subjects should be used only if they match your topic exactly. By default, CINAHL includes all subheadings in search results if no specific one(s) are selected. Use Subheadings cautiously.

Scope note: Click Scope Note (in the 'Scope' column) for a definition of the subject heading.

Exploding a subject heading. If you select a thesaurus term that has narrower terms, you can also select the Explode checkbox to the right of it. This will automatically include all the narrower terms in your search. If there aren't any narrower terms, Explode can not be selected.

Major Concept: Select Major Concept to focus your search and retrieve only articles where your selected subject heading is the main focus of the article. This will narrow down your search results.

It is possible to expand the search to narrower terms by selecting "Explode". In the example, the term Ambulatory Care Nursing has been selected, but the Explode function hasn't been selected.

Combining search sets


Use the Search History link, beneath the search boxes, to view your searches and the number of results for each one. You can also combine search sets using the Boolean operators. 

  • It's important to clear the search fields before combining searches. Click Clear.
  • To combine searches, use the checkboxes to the left of each search line to select the lines that you want to combine, then select either the Search with AND or Search with OR button, above the list of search lines.
  • In the picture below, sets are being combined using the AND operator. CINAHL is thus searching for references that have term "quality" in their title and ambulatory care nursing as a subject heading.  


Note! When you combine searches, only the line numbers are shown in your search history, for example, S1 OR S2.  Always Click Clear next to the search boxes to remove the current search terms before combining sets. If this hasn't been done, search results aren't what they should be.