Everyone comes into contact with medical terminology at some point in their lives, whether during their own visits to the doctor or reading a medical document or report. It’s safe to say that this language can be difficult to understand, almost sounding like a foreign language.
The truth is, like all specialised terminology, medical terminology has a system. That is, once you grasp the basic framework, it becomes much easier to understand exactly what a term is referring to – no matter how complicated it looks.
The purpose of this article is to break down medical terminology so that you can begin to understand it. Whether or not you are a medical student, this article will give you a solid introduction to the topic.
DEFINITION OF MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY
What is medical terminology? Medical terminology is the vocabulary of the medical profession. It’s the specialised language of Western medicine, used to describe everything from the human body – its parts, processes, functions, dysfunctions and diseases – to all the medical procedures, interventions and pharmaceutical treatments. It’s basically the common language medical professionals use to quickly understand each other.
In language, morphology refers to how words are formed and relate to other words. The morphology of medical language works quite simply. Words are formed by combining different base elements, usually from Latin, to accurately describe any possible conditions of the human body. These elements are prefixes, root words, combining vowels and suffixes, of which each term will be a combination.
The prefix is placed at the start of a word to modify its meaning.
The root is the main part of the word.
The suffix is placed at the end of the root, also to modify the meaning.
For example, the word Gastroenteritis can be broken down into a prefix ‘gastro’, a root word ‘enter’, and a suffix ‘itis’:
Gastro – stomach
Enter – intestines
Itis – Inflammation
Through this breakdown, we can understand that Gastroenteritis means inflammation of the stomach and small intestine.
Doctors and medical health professionals also make use of abbreviations to quickly communicate information. Have you ever noticed your doctor scribble something down after your consultation, only to find you can’t make sense of their notes? Well – abbreviations and acronyms are commonly used as shorthand, either for instructions on prescribed medication, to describe test results, or to quickly refer to medical conditions or parts of the body.
LIST OF COMMON TERMS
Medical terminology is quite vast, but we’ve listed some of the most common medical terminology prefixes, suffixes root words and abbreviations for you below. These alone will help you interpret hundreds of medical terms.
a(n) absence of
bi, bis double, twice, two
circum around, about
contra against, counter
dys bad, faulty, abnormal
epi outer, superficial, upon
hyper excessive, high
hypo deficient, low
inter among, between
mal bad, abnormal
poly much, many
tachy fast, quick
acou, acu hear
ankyl(o) crooked, curved
anter(i) front, forward
chol(e) bile, or referring to gall-bladder
dactyl(o) finger or toe
glyc(o) sweet, or referring to glucose
lapar(o) flank, abdomen
phag(o) eat, destroy
pneum(ato) breath, air
poster(i) back, behind
pyel(o) pelvis of kidney
pyr(o) fever, fire
stom mouth, opening
thromb(o) clot, lump
algesia sensitivity to pain
ectomy excision (removal by cutting)
gen become, originate
gram, graph write, record
ostosis condition of bone
pathy disease, emotion
penia deficient, deficiency
peps, pept digest
poie make, produce
rhag break, burst
sten(o) narrow, compressed
tomy incision (operation by cutting)
These are just a few of the commonly used medical abbreviations you might come across.
a.c.: Before meals.
a/g ratio: Albumin to globulin ratio.
ACL: Anterior cruciate ligament. Ad lib: At liberty.
AFR: Acute renal failure
ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
b.i.d.: Twice daily.
Bandemia: Slang for elevated level of band forms of white blood cells.
Bibasilar: At the bases of both lungs.
BKA: Below the knee amputation.
BP: Blood pressure.
C&S: Culture and sensitivity, performed to detect infection.
C/O: Complaint of. The patient’s expressed concern.
Ca: Cancer; carcinoma.
CABG. Coronary artery bypass graft.
CBC: Complete blood count.
H&H: Hemoglobin and hematocrit.
H&P: History and physical examination.
h.s.: At bedtime. As in taking a medicine at bedtime.
I&D: Incision and drainage.
IBD: Inflammatory bowel disease.
ICD: Implantable cardioverter defibrillator
LCIS: Lobular Carcinoma In Situ.
LBP: Low back pain.
LLQ: Left lower quadrant.
N/V: Nausea or vomiting.
O.D.: Right eye.
O.S.: Left eye.
O.U.: Both eyes.
p¯: After meals. As in take two tablets after meals.
p.o.: By mouth. From the Latin terminology per os.
q.d.: Each day. As in taking a medicine daily.
q.i.d.: Four times daily. As in taking a medicine four times daily.
T&A: Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy
t.i.d.: Three times daily. As in taking a medicine three times daily.
TAH: Total abdominal hysterectomy
THR: Total hip replacement
SINGULAR TO PLURAL
If you’re confused by a word, it might be because it’s written in plural form. It’s worth getting to grips with the ten rules of singular and plural in medical terminology.
|Rule||Ending||To make plural||Example|
|Rule 1||Terms that end in “a”||Add “e”||vertebra (singular), vertebrae (plural)|
|Rule 2||Terms that end in “is”||Change it to “es”.||diagnosis (singular), diagnoses (plural)|
|Rule 3||Terms that end in “ex” or “ix”||Replace with “ices”||cervix (singular), cervices (plural)|
|Rule 4||Terms that end in “on”||Replace it with “a”||criterion (singular), criteria (plural)|
|Rule 5||Terms that end in “um”||Replace it with “a”||bacterium (singular), bacteria (plural)|
|Rule 6||Terms that end in “us”||Replace it with “i”||bronchus (singular), bronchi (plural)|
|Rule 7||Terms that end in “itis”||Replace it with “itides”.||arthritis (singular), arthrides (plural)|
|Rule 8||Terms that end in “nx”||Replace it with “nges”.||phalanx (singular), phalanges (plural)|
|Rule 9||Terms that end in “y”||Replace it with “ies”.||therapy (singular), therapies (plural)|
|Rule 10||Terms that end in “x”||Replace it with “ces”||thorax (singular), thoraces (plural)|
MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY BOOKS AND DICTIONARIES
There is definitely no shortage of books on the subject of medical terminology. Here is a handful of the most popular books available to buy:
For Everyday Use
Medical Terminology: A Short Course by Davi-Ellen Chabner
Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary by Elizabeth Martin
For Students and Professionals
The Language of Medicine, 11th Edition by Davi-Ellen Chabner
Medical Terminology: The Best and Most Effective Way to Memorize, Pronounce and Understand Medical Terms by David Andersson
Medical Terminology for Health Professions by Ann Ehrlich
MeDRA or the Medical Dictionary for Regulatory Activities is an internationally recognised resource, used specifically in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s available in an array of languages including English, Japanese, French, Russian, and Chinese.
HISTORY AND CONTEXT OF MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY
It’s probably obvious to you by the way it sounds, that medical terminology finds its origins in ancient Latin and Greek. According to the National Institutes of Health, the oldest recorded medical writings are those of the ancient Greek Hippocrates, also called the ‘father of medicine’, dating back to the 5th century BC. Another significant figure whose writing are still used was the Greek doctor Galen. When Rome conquered Greece, both cultures and languages merged and from this came new terminology for medical concepts and treatment. All of this was written by hand and passed down through history.
During the Renaissance, many Latin words were used to describe the human body. Apart from Greek and Latin, numerous other languages have made their contributions to medical terminology over time, including Arabic, Chinese, Gaelic, Dutch, Italian, German, French and Spanish.
Medical terminology is initially confusing, but with a bit of patience you’ll quickly become familiar with the way it works and what even the most complex words are referring you. This knowledge is useful for understanding some of the most common ailments that you may well experience in your lifetime, or if you’re working with medical texts.
The medical language we inherited from ancient civilisations is still in use today. Prefixes, root words and suffixes, that form the basis of all medical words, usually find their origin in ancient Greek and Latin.
There are many online and offline resources for understanding medical terminology – from general guides to use at home covering basic medical terminology, to industry-recognised books and dictionaries for practitioners and medical professionals. Among the options we’ve listed here, you should find something that fits your needs.