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Medical Mnemonics

By Daniel Champigny - Jun 01, 2020

Medical Mnemonics

At the risk of being horribly cliché, I am going to reference one of the most common descriptions of what PA school and practicing medicine is like and I’m sure you have heard it before!

They call it “drinking from a fire hose”, due to the vast amount of material and knowledge required for us to learn in such a short period of time. It is the equivalent of someone throwing you into the deep end of a pool, with you and every student or clinician on basically on their own to figure out the way they learn best and how to remember all the material.  

For me, it is medical mnemonics! In the grand scope of things, it is very difficult when learning medicine to simply string symptoms together that may all be related to the same entity, so this is very helpful for memory!

Some common mnemonics include the anti-cholinergic mnemonic and many pharmacology mnemonics.

Today, we will explore this process in the hopes of improving your medical recall.


What is a mnemonic?

According to the definition; a mnemonic is a memory device or learning technique that “aids information retention or retrieval in the human memory”. There are numerous types of memory aides, these include:

  • patterns of letters
  • associations
  • songs
  • or quick sayings that help a student retain the information at hand


These types of techniques are particularly helpful and paramount in a setting such as graduate physician assistant education, simply because of the volume of information required to master in such a short period of time.


Associating Symptoms with Potential Diseases

During PA school, I found it very difficult to associate the different diseases with their symptoms. For example, if one has never seen a patient in person who has Cushing’s disease; how can you possibly remember all of the different signs, symptoms, physical exam findings, as well as lab tests, etc.? It becomes very overwhelming and frustrating! However, as I moved through PA school, I found more and more mnemonics to build into my memory tool kit.


Building up Information & Mnemonic Devices

This building of information and mnemonics was particularly helpful not only for exams, but in addition, it was also very helpful for my role as a member on our school’s challenge bowl team. If you are not familiar with challenge bowl and are still a PA student while reading this; I strongly suggest looking into joining your program’s team or even practicing with them.


The Challenge Bowl

The challenge bowl is a medical competition held each year where teams of three students from each program compete to answer medical questions. Nerdy, I know, but it was a definitive factor in my ability to learn new mnemonics, buzz words, associations and definitely contributed to my ability to pass the PANCE on my first try.


Famous Clinical Mnemonics

You may be well versed in mnemonics at this point depending on your clinical prowess, but there are always new ones to learn! Some of the most famous ones include:

  • The less than PG rated mnemonic for the carpal bones of the hand
  • or the very inappropriate mnemonic for the cranial nerves.
  • Even the way we take a medical history (OPQRST or SAMPLE) helps guide us to remember what questions to ask patients.


Memory Aids – for Clinical Cues

In addition to mnemonics that are just simply letters or words that actually spell out what you need to remember (like CURB-65 or MUD PILES/ USED CARP), there are numerous other memory aides in the form of songs or phrases. You may be familiar with the phrase “stones, bones, abdominal groans, and psychiatric overtones” for the symptoms of hypercalcemia or the more complicated phrase for the anticholinergic mnemonic for toxidrome:

  • Hot as a hare
  • Dry as a bone
  • Blind as a bat
  • Red as a beet
  • Mad as a hatter

There are numerous ways to remember things and the greatest part of mnemonics as well as memory aides, is that you can make up your own to help you remember things! There are many out there but making up your own may improve your own anamnestic abilities! For example, I have never forgotten the side effect of priapism with trazodone due to the hilarious phrase, “trazodone raises the bone!”

Pharmacologic Mnemonics

In addition, there are numerous mnemonics available for what some students seem to be challenged by most, pharmacologic mnemonics. Pharmacology can be very difficult for students to master, especially when covering an entire section such as cardiology in PA school and being given many medications to remember mechanism of action, side effects.

The beauty of technology is that many of these mnemonics have been compiled by students or clinicians and posted on the internet or in other resources for use by anyone! There are also numerous books that are available for studying mnemonics as well:

Ultimate Medical Mnemonic Comic Book

Although I do not own this particular book, I was able to thumb through a few of the pages, which was in the format of having a cartoon or drawing accompanying the mnemonic, which seemed to be a very good set up. In an instant, I learned two new associations with a disease process that I was not aware of prior!


Learning and practicing medicine is hard, there is no doubt to that, but we have to do everything we can to stack the deck! Medical mnemonics, memory tools and any other resources we can use to help retain information and learn medicine, are very important to help ease the burden of studying medicine. If you have not seriously explored every mnemonic you can get your brain on, consider this valuable resource!


This article or blog post should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing standard of care in a legal sense or as a basis of expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast or blog.