Rotation can occur:

  • Within the vertebral column: rotation of the neck or body is the twisting movement produced by the summation of the small rotational movements available between adjacent vertebrae. 
  • At a pivot joint: one bone rotates in relation to another bone. This is a uniaxial joint, and thus rotation is the only motion allowed at a pivot joint. For example, at the atlantoaxial joint, the first cervical (C1) vertebra (atlas) rotates around the dens, the upward projection from the second cervical (C2) vertebra (axis). This allows the head to rotate from side to side as when shaking the head “no.” The proximal radioulnar joint is a pivot joint formed by the head of the radius and its articulation with the ulna. This joint allows for the radius to rotate along its length during pronation and supination movements of the forearm.
  • At a ball-and-socket joint: shoulder and hip. Here, the humerus and femur rotate around their long axis, which moves the anterior surface of the arm or thigh either toward or away from the midline of the body.

Movement that brings the anterior surface of the limb toward the midline of the body is called medial (internal) rotation. Conversely, rotation of the limb so that the anterior surface moves away from the midline is lateral (external) rotation (Picture 1 f). Be sure to distinguish medial and lateral rotation, which can only occur at the multiaxial shoulder and hip joints, from circumduction, which can occur at either biaxial or multiaxial joints.