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Decoding Medical Terminology

Updated on October 14, 2012

If you’ve ever wondered how those long, confusing medical words are created and what they mean, then you’ve landed in the right place. This short guide will explain how those mysterious medical words are formed and how to decipher them.

Medical words consist of three main parts, or elements: the prefix, the root word, and the suffix. The prefix goes at the beginning of the word. The root is the main part of the word. And the suffix goes at the end of the word.

Not every medical word will have a prefix, root word, and suffix. Some medical words are shorter than others and will only consist of a root word and a suffix. For example, let’s look at the word Arthritis. Arthr is the root word, and -itis is the suffix.

Some words are longer than others and will have more than one root word, which are either combined together with an o or an i. As this is a basic guide to medical terminology, I won’t dive into combining long words with multiple roots here. However, further along there is a link to a free online medical terminology class if you are interested in learning more about the subject. Until then, let’s take some time now to look at some of the more common word elements for better understanding.

The following chart shows some common word elements:

intra- ( within)
ven/o (vein)
-ous (pertaining to)
echo- (sound)
osteo (bone)
-pathy (disease)
brady- (slow)
rhin/o (nose)
-plasty (surgical repair)
tachy- (rapid)
cardi/o (heart)
-itis (inflammation)
hyper- (excessive)
gastr/o (stomach)
-genesis (generating, forming)
hypo- (under, less than normal)
glyc/o (glucose, sugar)
-logist (one who specializes in)
bio- (life)
cyt/o (cell)
-logy (the study of)
mono- (one)
leuk/o (white)
-emia (blood condition)
hydro- (water)
cephal/o (head)
-osis (condition)
post- (after, behind)
pulmon/o (lungs)
-metry ( the process of measuring)

Practice Words

Now that you know what the parts of the words are, you can learn how to decode them. It’s actually fairly painless. To define a word that contains both a root word and a suffix, simply work your way backwards through the word. Let’s revisit our word from before – arthritis. Since the rule for a word with root word and suffix is to work our way backwards, we start with defining the suffix first. In the word arthritis, itis is the suffix. Itis means inflammation. So now we know that arthritis has to do with inflammation. Working our way backwards, we come to the word arthr, which means joint. Therefore, we can determine that arthritis is inflammation of a joint.

Now let’s try another word. This word will include a prefix as well as the root word and suffix. To define a word with a prefix, define the suffix first, then the prefix, then define the root word last. To closer examine this rule, let’s dissect and define the word electrocardiogram. Starting with the suffix, which is at the end of the word, we define gram, which means record or picture. Since this word contains a prefix, we then define the prefix, electro, which means electrical, or electricity. As the last step, we define the root word, cardio, which means heart. Now we can determine that electrocardiogram means a record or picture of the electricity of the heart. You've probably heard the acronym for electrocardiogram many times - EKG or ECG.

Combining Word Parts

You may recognize some familiar word parts from the chart above. Try mixing familiar word elements together to better understand what certain words mean. You won't be able to combine all word elements, as some of them won't form real medical terms. But you will be able to combine some - such as biology, and intravenous.

Learning More About Medical Terminology

If you would like to learn more word elements and more about medical terminology in general, there is a free class offered online at I am not associated with that college, nor do I receive any compensation for displaying their link. I actually took Medical Terminology at a completely different college. Since it's a free class though, I wanted to share the link for anyone who is interested in furthering their knowledge on the subject of medical terminology.

Please note that if you want a certificate for the class, there is a charge. However, you don't have to opt for the certificate. The link provided above is for the free class.


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    • SunsetSky profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from USA

      Thank you for your comment :) It's amazing how knowing just the basic word parts allow us to be able to decipher a long , hard-to-pronounce word. I loved Medical Terminology class.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      An interesting hub. As I grow older I find I need to decipher more and more unusual medical terms and I go back to my early linguistics training to understand them, with the prefixes, root and suffixes as you have so ably shown.


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