Back

Dorsal and Ventral

What Are They, Differences, and More

Author: Georgina Tiarks

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Kelsey LaFayette, BAN, RN 

Illustrator: Jillian Dunbar

Copyeditor: Joy Mapes


What is dorsal and ventral?

Dorsal and ventral are paired anatomical terms used to describe opposite locations on a body that is in the anatomical position. The anatomical position of a human body is defined as a body standing upright with the head facing forward, arms down at the sides with the palms turned forward, and feet parallel facing forward. On a human body, dorsal (i.e., posterior) refers to the back portion of the body, whereas ventral (i.e., anterior) refers to the front part of the body.

The terms dorsal and ventral are also often used to describe the relative location of a body part. For example, the stomach is ventral to the spinal cord, which means that the stomach is located in front of the spinal cord.

What is the difference between dorsal and ventral?

The main difference between dorsal and ventral is the area of the body to which they refer. In general, ventral refers to the front of the body, and dorsal refers to the back. These terms are also known as anterior and posterior, respectively. 

However, for certain parts of the body, the uses of “ventral” and “dorsal” differ from the standard definition. For instance, the dorsal part of the penis is the area that is closest to the abdomen when erect. Similarly, for the feet, the dorsal side is the top of the foot, or the area facing upwards when standing upright.

Excited Mo character in scrubs
Join millions of students and clinicians who learn by Osmosis!
Start Your Free Trial

What are the dorsal and ventral body cavities?

The dorsal and ventral body cavities, two of the largest body compartments in humans, are anatomical spaces that contain various organs and other structures. The dorsal cavity lies close to the spine in the posterior portion of the body. The dorsal cavity contains the spinal column, central nervous system (i.e., brain and spinal cord), and meninges (i.e., tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). 

On the anterior side of the body, the ventral cavity is made up of the thoracic cavity, abdominal cavity, and pelvic cavity. The thoracic cavity contains the heart, lungs, breast tissue, thymus gland, and blood vessels. Inside the abdominal cavity are the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine, colon, appendix, and kidneys. Lastly, the pelvic cavity contains the reproductive organs, bladder, part of the colon (i.e., large intestine), and the rectum.

What are the most important facts to know about dorsal and ventral?

Dorsal and ventral are terms that refer, respectively, to the back and front portions of the human body in the anatomical position. These terms can also be referred to as posterior and anterior surfaces. Ventral and dorsal can be used to describe the position of organs in relation to one another. For example, one could say, “The small intestine is ventral to the kidneys”, which means the small intestine is in front of the kidneys. These anatomical terms can also describe different body cavities. The dorsal cavity contains the spinal cord, central nervous system, and spinal column, whereas the ventral cavity consists of the thoracic, abdominal, and pelvic cavities.

Quiz yourself on Dorsal and Ventral

10 Questions available

Quiz now!

Watch related videos:

Mo with coat and stethoscope

Want to Join Osmosis?

Join millions of students and clinicians who learn by Osmosis!

Start Your Free Trial

Related links

Anatomy of the foot
Anatomy of the pelvic cavity

Resources for research and reference

Moore, K., Dalley, A., II, & Agur, A. (2019). Clinically oriented anatomy (8th ed.). Wolters Kluwer Health. 

Chithiramohan, T. (2017, December 22). Terms of location in embryology. In TeachMeAnatomy. Retrieved February 14, 2021, from https://teachmeanatomy.info/the-basics/anatomical-terminology/embryology/ 

Worsley, C., & Hacking, C. (n.d.). Anatomical position. In Radiopaedia. Retrieved February 14, 2021, from https://radiopaedia.org/articles/anatomic-position?lang=us