MySQL, one of the most popular relational database management systems, offers powerful features for querying and manipulating data. One such feature is recursive queries, which allow you to traverse hierarchical or tree-like structures within your database. In this blog post, we’ll delve into recursive queries in MySQL, exploring their syntax, use cases, and best practices.

What are Recursive Queries?

Recursive queries, also known as recursive common table expressions (CTEs), enable you to perform hierarchical queries by repeatedly applying a query to its own output until a certain condition is met. These queries are particularly useful when dealing with hierarchical data structures like organizational charts, file systems, or product categories, where each record can have a parent-child relationship.

Syntax of Recursive Queries

The syntax for creating a recursive query in MySQL involves using a common table expression (CTE) with the WITH RECURSIVE clause. Here’s a basic structure of a recursive query:

-- Anchor member
FROM ...
— Recursive member
JOIN cte_name ON
FROM cte_name;

In this syntax:

  • cte_name: Name of the common table expression.
  • Anchor member: The initial query that serves as the base case for recursion.
  • Recursive member: The query that references the CTE itself, forming the recursive step.
  • UNION [ALL]: Optional clause to combine results of the anchor and recursive members.
  • The final SELECT statement retrieves the result set from the CTE.

Example Use Case: Organizational Chart

Let’s illustrate the concept of recursive queries with an example. Consider an organizational chart stored in a MySQL database, where each employee record contains their ID and the ID of their manager (parent). We want to retrieve all employees and their respective managers in a hierarchical structure.

-- Anchor member: Employees without managers (top-level)
SELECT employee_id, employee_name, NULL AS manager_id, 0 AS level
FROM employees
WHERE manager_id IS NULL

— Recursive member: Employees with managers
SELECT e.employee_id, e.employee_name, e.manager_id, oc.level + 1
FROM employees AS e
JOIN org_chart AS oc ON e.manager_id = oc.employee_id
SELECT * FROM org_chart;

In this example:

  • The anchor member selects employees without managers (those at the top level of the hierarchy).
  • The recursive member joins the employees table with the org_chart CTE to fetch employees with their respective managers.
  • The recursion continues until all employees and their managers are retrieved.

Best Practices and Considerations

When working with recursive queries in MySQL, it’s essential to keep the following best practices in mind:

  1. Define Termination Conditions: Ensure that your recursive query has termination conditions to prevent infinite loops.
  2. Limit Recursion Depth: Set a maximum recursion depth to avoid excessive resource consumption.
  3. Optimize Performance: Use appropriate indexes and optimize query performance for large datasets.
  4. Test Thoroughly: Test your recursive queries with different data scenarios to ensure correctness and efficiency.


Recursive queries in MySQL provide a powerful way to query hierarchical data structures efficiently. By understanding their syntax, use cases, and best practices, you can leverage recursive queries to tackle complex problems involving hierarchical relationships in your database schema.

In this blog post, we’ve covered the basics of recursive queries and demonstrated their application in a practical scenario. Armed with this knowledge, you can now explore and implement recursive queries in your MySQL projects with confidence.