Planning your search terms

Define your research question 

If you were researching the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating allergic rhinitis, you might begin with a research question that looks like the following.

Example research question

How effective is acupuncture in treating allergic rhinitis? 

This question could be improved by utilising the PICO framework to look like this:

Improved example research question

In patients with allergic rhinitis is acupuncture compared with pharmacological treatment more effective in decreasing pain symptoms?

P (problem) = In patients with allergic rhinitis

I (intervention) = is acupuncture

C (comparator) = compared with pharmacological treatment

O (outcome) = more effective in decreasing pain symptoms?

Compiling a list of search terms

Let’s look at two of the concepts from the research question:

  1. allergic rhinitis
  2. acupuncture

When you start compiling a list of possible search terms you need to think of your own keywords, as well as the thesaurus (i.e. subject) terms used by each of the databases you will be searching.

The following table shows some keywords and thesaurus terms for allergic rhinitis and acupuncture. The thesaurus terms are MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) as used by the PubMed database. Thesaurus terms for other databases would be added to the list.

Database search terms

Concepts Allergic rhinitis Acupuncture
Keywords allergic rhinitis
hay fever
rose cold
rose fever
perennial hayfever
seasonal hayfever
plum blossom
ear acupuncture
ear acupressure
auricular therapy
laser acupuncture
seven star needle
electro acupuncture
transcutaneous nerve stimulation
transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
electro stimulation
point injection
(Medical Subject Headings)
rhinitis, allergic
rhinitis, allergic, seasonal
rhinitis, allergic, perennial
respiratory hypersensitivity
acupuncture, ear
acupuncture therapy
acupuncture analgesia
acupuncture points
transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation


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Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers Copyright © 2022 by RMIT University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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