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Medical Terms

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.


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.

Medical Terms
Medical 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

ante     before

anti      against

aut(o)   self

bi, bis   double, twice, two

brachy short

brady   slow

circum around, about

contra  against, counter

dorsi    back

dys      bad, faulty, abnormal

end(o)  inside

epi       outer, superficial, upon

eu        normal

extra    outside

hemi    half

hyper   excessive, high

hypo    deficient, low

infra    beneath

inter     among, between

intra     inside

mal      bad, abnormal

megal(o)          large

peri      around

poly     much, many

post     after

pseud(o)          false

supra   above

tachy   fast, quick

Root Words

acou, acu         hear

aden(o) gland

aer(o)   air

alges(o)            pain

andr(o) male

angi(o) vessel

ankyl(o)          crooked, curved

anter(i) front, forward

arteri(o)           artery

arthr(o) joint

articul  joint

ather(o) fatty

audi(o) hearing

aur(i)   ear

bucc(o) cheek

carcin(o)          cancer

cardi(o) heart

cephal(o)         head

cerebr(o)         brain

cervic  neck

chol(e) bile, or referring to gall-bladder

chondr(o)        cartilage

corpor  body

cost(o) rib

crani(o) skull

cry(o)  cold

cut       skin

cyan(o) blue

cyst(o) bladder

cyt(o)   cell

dactyl(o)          finger or toe

dent     tooth

derm(ato)        skin

dipl(o) double

dors     back

encephal(o)      brain

enter(o) intestine

erythr(o)          red

gastr(o) stomach

gloss(o)           tongue

glyc(o) sweet, or referring to glucose

gyn      woman

hem(ato)          blood

hepat(o)           liver

hist(o)  tissue

hydr(o) water

hyster(o)          uterus

iatr(o)  doctor

lact(o)  milk

lapar(o) flank, abdomen

latero   side

leuk(o) white

lingu(o)           tongue

lip(o)   fat

mamm(o)        breast

mast(o) breast

melan(o)          black

mening(o)        membranes

my(o)  muscle

myc(o) fungus

myel(o) marrow

nas(o)  nose

necr(o) death

nephr(o)          kidney

neur(o) nerve

nutri     nourish

ocul(o) eye

odyn(o) pain

onc(o)  tumor

oophor(o)        ovaries

ophthalm(o)     eye

orchi(o)           testes

osse(o) bone

ot(o)    ear

path(o) disease

ped(o)  child

phag(o) eat, destroy

pharmaco        drug

pharyng(o)       throat

phleb(o)          vein

pneum(ato)      breath, air

pneumon(o)     lung

pod(o) foot

poster(i)           back, behind

presby elder

proct(o)           anus

psych(o)          mind

pulmon(o)       lung

pyel(o) pelvis of kidney

pyr(o)  fever, fire

rachi(o) spine

ren(o)  kidneys

rhin(o) nose

somat(o)          body

spondyl(o)       vertebra

steat(o) fat

steth(o) chest

stom    mouth, opening

therm(o)          heat

thorac(o)         chest

thromb(o)        clot, lump

tox(i)   poison

vas(o)  vessel

ven(o)  vein

vesic(o)           bladder

xer(o)  dry


algesia                sensitivity to pain

algia      pain

derma              skin

ectomy excision (removal by cutting)

emia    blood

gen      become, originate

gram, graph     write, record

itis       inflammation

lys(is)  dissolve

malacia            soft

oma     tumor

opia     vision

opsy    examination

osis      condition

ostosis condition of bone

pathy   disease, emotion

penia   deficient, deficiency

peps, pept        digest

phob(ia)          fear

plasty   repair

pleg(ia) paralysis

pnea    breathing

poie     make, produce

rhag     break, burst

rhe       flow

sclerosis          hardening

scope   instrument

scopy   examination

sten(o) narrow, compressed

therapy treatment

tomy    incision (operation by cutting)

uria      urine


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.

bld: Blood.

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.

cap: Capsule.

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.

Na: Sodium.

O.D.: Right eye.

O.S.: Left eye.

O.U.: Both eyes.

P: Pulse.

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: Temperature.

T&A: Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy

t.i.d.: Three times daily. As in taking a medicine three times daily.

tab: Tablet

TAH: Total abdominal hysterectomy

THR: Total hip replacement


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.

RuleEndingTo make pluralExample
Rule 1Terms that end in “a”Add “e”vertebra (singular), vertebrae (plural)
Rule 2Terms that end in “is”Change it to “es”.diagnosis (singular), diagnoses (plural)
Rule 3Terms that end in “ex” or “ix”Replace with “ices”cervix (singular), cervices (plural)
Rule 4Terms that end in “on”Replace it with “a”criterion (singular), criteria (plural)
Rule 5Terms that end in “um”Replace it with “a”bacterium (singular), bacteria (plural)
Rule 6Terms that end in “us”Replace it with “i”bronchus (singular), bronchi (plural)
Rule 7Terms that end in “itis”Replace it with “itides”.arthritis (singular), arthrides (plural)
Rule 8Terms that end in “nx”Replace it with “nges”.phalanx (singular), phalanges (plural)
Rule 9Terms that end in “y”Replace it with “ies”.therapy (singular), therapies (plural)
Rule 10Terms that end in “x”Replace it with “ces”thorax (singular), thoraces (plural)


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.


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.

If you need help with Medical translations, we offer professional services within the fields of Medicine and Medical Technology. Contact us to book a free consultation.

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