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Massage Today
January, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 01


By Neal Cross, PhD, NCTMB

Anatomy has an age-old relationship with medicine and its origins. This association goes back at least three millennia. The word "anatomy" is derived from the Greek "ana," which means "part," and "tome," which means "a cutting." So, anatomy really refers to cutting apart or to dissecting.

The availability of and attitude toward dissecting human cadavers has varied greatly over the past three thousand years.

At times, we had to dissect animals and infer from those studies what human structure must be like. At other times, we had the opportunity to dissect great numbers of human bodies and speculate as to the function of the parts we observed.

Arguably the first great anatomist/physician was Galen. His dissections led him to speculate about the function of the human body. Some of his speculations were accurate; most were not. Galen's influence over the science of anatomy lasted over 1,000 years. It was not until after the dark ages that some early anatomists challenged Galen's speculations.

Three thousand years later, we still observe a close relationship between anatomy and medicine. We also have had an ever-increasing number of professions that demand a study of the anatomy. This demand is related to the fact that the study of anatomy is fundamental to any profession that purports to fix broken anatomy; adjust "wounded "anatomy, assist dysfunctional anatomy; or relax stressed anatomy. Massage therapists and body workers may fit into all or certainly some of these professional groups. How do we study anatomy? The answer to this question is as varied as the professions, which work with the human body.

In my view, the single best way to learn human anatomy is to systematically take apart a body. This is a long and arduous process, but one that is as rewarding and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, few professions have the opportunity or privilege to dissect a human cadaver. This has led to all sorts of scenarios in which teachers and students attempt to learn the structure of the human body.

  • Using prosected specimens over and over is probably the next best thing to dissection. However, in these programs the amount of hands-on work can be minimal.
  • Using models or museum specimens is yet another method employed to assist us in obtaining a three-dimensional picture of the human anatomy. Over the past three decades I have seen the quality of these models improve a great deal. However, they are not real tissue, and they do not look, feel or smell real.
  • Three-dimensional computer programs are perhaps the latest attempt to teach human anatomy without the body being present. Some of these programs are excellent; some are not.
  • Another way that we attempt to learn human anatomy is via pictures in books that feature animal dissections. This is usually a cat; sometimes a fetal pig. Personally, if I wanted to learn cat anatomy I would dissect a cat! And finally, there are programs that would have us understand the human anatomy by reading a book and looking at pictures.

With the exception of computer-aided instruction, all of the above methods in some form have been used for the last several thousand years. The dissection of a human body is far and away the best. Unfortunately, it is not feasible or even possible in many instances.

I am biased in that I am an anatomist. I love my science. I am fascinated by it. I am in awe of the human body. After having taught medical gross anatomy for about 15 years, I started studying bodywork and massage. Sitting through the practical clinical portions of many courses, I was struck that I could absorb the material at lightning speed, I had already had the experience of guiding others through hundreds of human bodies. My classmates were envious; I helped them when I could, but many times my references falsely assumed that they to had dissected. My efforts were compromised.

I recall a few years back, I heard a massage therapist say that she had the opportunity to visit a cadaver lab. She found the atmosphere depressing, the bodies smelly and grotesque, and the experience was of no value to her chosen profession. I do not understand. Every time I visit the human body, inside or out, I am in awe. The human body is a beautiful thing.

Click here for previous articles by Neal Cross, PhD, NCTMB.


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