What is Some Common Medical Terminology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2019
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Medical terminology can get very confusing for people who are not members of the medical field. Having a grasp on some commonly-used medical terminology can be helpful when it comes to navigating medical appointments and advocating for yourself or others. However, it's important to remember that doctors go to school for a very long time, and they pick up a large vocabulary along the way, so patients should never be afraid to ask a doctor to clarify a term.

A lot of medical terminology is based on Greek and Latin, so getting familiarized with some commonly used Greek and Latin stems help one understand the meaning of a word by breaking it into its component parts. Even if you don't know the stems specifically, you may be able to understand the meaning of a word by thinking about similar English words, because these roots are shared with the English language. For example, if you don't know the meaning of the word “quadriplegia,” you might be able to infer that it refers to something with “four,” since “quad-” is a commonly-used prefix which means “four.”


Prefixes like endo-, intra-, inter-, and peri- all have to do with the location of something, in this case “inside,” “within,” “between,” and “around.” If a word has one of these prefixes, it tells you where the problem is located, as for example in the “pneum,” or lung. If the problem is located in the heart, doctors will use the term “cardi,” while “stomat” refers to the mouth, “trach” to the windpipe, “gastro” to the stomach and intestinal tract, “renal” to the kidneys, “phleb” to the veins, “hem” or “hemat” to the blood, “neuro” to the nerves, “angio” to the vessels, and “arthro” to the joints. So, a word that starts with “endocardi-” refers to something taking place inside the heart.

Medical suffixes like -algia, -itis, -plegia, and -osis all describe specific issues. An “-algia” is a pain, as in “neuralgia” for “nerve pain,” while an “-itis” is a form of inflammation, as in “arthritis,” an inflammation of the joints, and “-plegia” is paralysis. “-osis” is an abnormality, while a “-pathy” is a disease, as in “cardioneuropathy,” a disease which affects the heart and nervous system.

You may also hear suffixes like “-somnia,” alerting you that the issue concerns sleep, and “-rrhage” for an unusual discharge, or “-rrhea” for a loose flow. Prefixes like “hypo,” “hyper,” “tachy,” and “brady” describe specific qualities of the condition, in this case “too little,” “too much,” “too fast,” and “too slow.” Thus, someone with “bradycardia” has a slow heartbeat, while someone with “hyperthermia” has a temperature which is too high.

Other medical terms describe courses of action which might be taken. A “-gram” is a medical image, such as an “angiogram” of the blood vessels, while a “-scopy” is a look inside the body with a camera. An “-ectomy” involves cutting something out of the body, while an “-ostomy” is a hole cut in the body, and an “-otomy” is a surgical procedure which involves cutting or opening, but no removal of tissue.

Doctors are also huge fans of using acronyms, like “BP” for “blood pressure,” “BID” for “twice daily,” or “ETOH” for “ethanol,” better known to most patients as “alcohol.” When doctors start throwing acronyms around, patients should not hesitate to speak up and ask for a clarification, since there are thousands of acronyms in regular use in the medical community.

This small primer of medical terminology is a step in the right direction, but if you really want to study medical terminology, you may want to consider buying a set of medical flashcards or a medical dictionary. Flashcards are especially useful, because they provide a brief definition of the term, and they are easy to carry around for study.


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Post 1

This is a really useful little book for getting to know the prefixes and suffixes that make up medical words:

"Classical Roots for Medics", published by Chambers, ISBN 978 0550 10349 9. It costs £9.99.

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