Track versus tract

Last revised by Dr Daniel J Bell on 12 Aug 2022

The terms track and tract are commonly mixed up in radiology and medicine (and often English more generally).

Track in medicine refers to an artificially created path through something, a typical example being a "needle track" which is the narrow channel formed when a needle is inserted into, and withdrawn from, tissue. The path of a parasitic worm through the body is also referred to as its track.

A tract is usually used as an anatomical term referring to:

Although the meanings of track and tract are distinct, their similar spellings and the fact that they both refer to structurally-similar entities means that they are often mixed up. This is not helped by several publications using the wrong term, so that "needle tract" has appeared in several article titles in the peer-reviewed literature 3-6.

The water is also slightly muddied since "sinus tract" is the correct term for the pathologically-formed path in some inflammatory conditions which resembles a fistula but is open at one end only. This can result in the correct yet potentially confusing phrase that "the pus tracks along the sinus tract". The track formed by a fistula is also - correctly - called a fistulous tract.

Despite their superficial similarity in spelling, track and tract have different and unrelated etymologies 7

"Track" is first recorded in the late 15th century as a mark left by something, from the Middle French "trac", itself of unclear origin, perhaps a Germanic source. It may be related to the Dutch term "trek" which ultimately gives us the modern English word of the same spelling 7.

Conversely, "tract" is derived from the Latin word "tractus" which means - somewhat ironically - track! Tractus comes from the verb "trahere" meaning to pull or draw 7

ADVERTISEMENT: Supporters see fewer/no ads

Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: track
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Updating… Please wait.

     Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

     Thank you for updating your details.