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How To Understand The Medical Terms Used By Your Doctor.

Updated on February 16, 2015

Medical terminology - another language?

Medical terminology can seem like another language to people who are not familiar with it and in truth it does actually originate from Greek and Latin. This is probably the reason why it's so confusing. Nevertheless, no matter where the words originate, not understanding a doctor or other professional, causes embarrassment and annoyance. In addition, it can cause complications if the patient doesn't understand certain aspects such as treatment, medication and so on.

However, believe it or not, basic medical terminology is easy to pick up and understand. All that is really required is learning some of the most common words, prefixes and suffixes. Achieve this, and you will always have, if not complete knowledge, at least a very good idea what medical people are talking about.

Generally speaking, medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc., don't talk medical jargon in order to deliberately confuse the patient. They are so used to talking in this language - day in, day out, for years - that it's genuinely easy to forget that most people haven't a clue what they're talking about. As a nurse myself I've been guilty of this a few times and had to stop myself, apologise to my patient and start my conversation over again.

Obviously I won't be covering all medical terminology - that would fill several large volumes. However, I'll describe a few common conditions and the medical words used to describe them. This, hopefully, will be a good starting point for you.

Once you learn the basics, medical terminology and words are easier to understand.
Once you learn the basics, medical terminology and words are easier to understand. | Source
Knowing a little anatomy and breaking down medical words into prefixes and suffixes, is the easiest way to learn their meanings.
Knowing a little anatomy and breaking down medical words into prefixes and suffixes, is the easiest way to learn their meanings. | Source

Why do we have all these big words?

Many people, understandably, often ask why the need for so many big words and medical jargon? One of the best explanations for this comes from the NHS (National Health Service) Patient Information:

"Medical terminology is a vocabulary for accurately describing the human body and associated components, conditions, processes and procedures in a science-based manner."

What this also ensures is that all medical professionals are using the same words and measurements to describe or diagnose exactly the same thing.

Understanding Medical Words.

Once you get the hang of how medical words are put together, it makes it a lot easier to understand them. Basically they are made up of different words brought together, and/or medical terms with prefixes or suffixes added.

Below are a few examples of conditions that cause inflammation and how the words are compiled:

1. We'll start with one of the most common suffixes - 'itis' any medical word that ends in 'itis' means that this is an inflammation. In addition, this suffix frequently means that infection is also present. For example:

  • Appendicitis - inflammation of the appendix. When the appendix is inflammed there is infection present as well.
  • Arthritis - inflammation of the joints. Any medical words beginning with the word 'arth ' or 'arthro ' has to do with the joints of the body. Therefore, the word for joints and the word for inflammation are simply joined together to give an exact diagnosis and location.
  • Osteomyelitis - this is a very painful and debilitating condition that causes severe inflammation, due to infection of the bones. In this case we have three divisions in this word - we have the itis and we have two others - osteo and myel or myloid . 'Osteo' always refers to bone and 'myel/myloid' refers to the bone marrow.
  • Nephritis is inflammation of the kidney. The word 'nephr' or 'nephro' always relates to the kidney. There may or may not be infection present. Usually, just to be difficult, an infection of the kidney is referred to as Pyelonephritis . The prefix 'pyelo' refers to the area of the kidney known as the 'renal pelvis', a funnel shaped area that collects the urine and passes it onto the bladder.

2. Pain is obviously something we are all concerned about and there are medical words relating specifically to it:

  • Algia - this is a suffix that means pain. For example in the condition 'neuralgia' this means pain in one or more nerves. In the case of 'neuralgia' the prefix 'neur' or 'neuro' always refers to the nerves of the body. In the case of someone with a common form of neuralgia such as 'Trigeminal Neuralgia' , this basically means that this person has pain in the nerve called the 'trigeminal' nerve - the main one found in the face.
  • Analgesia - this is the medical term for pain relief. This is made up of two words - 'algesia' that means 'sensitivity to pain' and the prefix 'a' or 'an' that means 'without, no or not'. So the term actually means 'without/no/not sensitive to pain' and this is how it's hoped analgesia will work for people.

3. Infection is another common condition that can cause confusion if medical terms are used. As we have seen with category one, 'itis' means inflammation but this can indicate that infection is present. However, the condition of infection can also have it's own specific term in certain cases and these are prefixes - put at the beginning of the word:

  • 'Sep/s' or 'sepso' are prefixes used to describe an infection somewhere in the body. An example of this is - 'septicaemia' - meaning infection or high levels of bacteria in the blood stream. The word 'aemia' always refers to the blood. The middle word 'tic' means pertaining to or referring to. So the whole word is saying - 'sep'/infection, 'tic'/referring to, 'aemia'/ the blood.
  • You'll often see the suffix 'aemia' given as 'emia'. The only difference, is that the British form - 'aemia' - is the original spelling and other countries have dropped the 'a' and adopted a more straightforward spelling. This happens with a large number of medical words. However, they do still look very similar and the meanings are exactly the same.

For the last part of this hub, we'll concentrate on one of the major organs and the most common medical terms used with it. This should give you some idea of how medical terms are made up of words relating to one specific area of the body. As mentioned earlier, depending on what country you live in, the spellings might be slightly different, but they are still recognisable as the same word.

Other common medical words used

Common Terms
1. 'ectomy' - means the removal of.
Example - appendectomy, removal of the appendix.
2. 'encephal' or 'encephalo' - refers to the brain
Example - encephalitis - inflammation of the brain.
3. 'osis' - means 'condition' usually an abnormal condition.
Example - stenosis, is the abnormal narrowing of a blood vessel.
4. 'oma' - can mean a couple of things such as a tumour, mass or fluid collection.
Example - myeloma - cancerous tumour in bone. Elsewhere in the hub we see that 'myel' refers to bone marrow.
5. 'cerebro' - refers to the 'cerebrum' the largest part of the brain.
Example - cerebrovascular disease - relates to diseases of the blood vessels supplying the brain.

Test Your Knowledge

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In this section I'm going to concentrate on one of the major body organs to let you see how medical terminology is built up and specific to a particular part of the body.

The Heart

There are many medical terms, depending on what is wrong with the heart, that describes exactly what the condition is and area of the heart affected.

1. A number of medial terms associated with the heart start with 'cardi' or 'cardio'

  • Cardiac - relating to the heart.
  • Cardiovascular - this means relating to the heart (cardio) and the blood vessels (vascular).
  • Cardiologist - a doctor who specialises in conditions of the heart - 'cardio'/heart and ology/study of.

2. Other terms associated with the heart, relates to the blood vessels found within it:

  • Coronary - the coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply the heart itself with blood and nutrients. Coronary means crown-like and refers to areas of the body that surround another part in a crown-like/circular way.
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) - blockage of one or more of the arteries due to a build up of plaque.
  • Coronary by-pass - a procedure where the blockage is repaired by 'by-passing' it and using part of a vein as a graft.
  • Having a 'coronary' - this is an older term, still used by a few people, for someone who is having a heart attack.

3. The tissues that cover the heart also give rise to some medical terms:

  • Pericardium - 'peri' meaning outer/surrounding and 'cardium' the heart, so referring to the outermost protective covering of the heart. One of the most well known conditions affecting this area of the heart is pericarditis. Which basically means 'peri' referring to the outer covering, 'card' referring to the heart, and as we have seen already 'itis' meaning inflammation. This condition is usually caused by a virus although in rarer cases the condition is caused by bacteria.
  • Myocardium - is the middle and thickest layer of the heart consisting mostly of specialised muscle. One of the main terms associated with this area of the heart is myocardial infarction or M.I. for short. This is another term for a heart attack.'Myo' is the myocardium, 'cardial' the heart. Infarction is basically a blockage of a blood vessel by a blood clot or some other obstacle. This causes the blood supply to be cut off - damage or death of the tissues beyond the blockage will occur.
  • Endocardium - this is the inner most layer of the heart that lines the cavities and covers the blood vessels. Although rare, one of the best known conditions affecting this area is Endocarditis. This is inflammation and infection due to bacteria of this inner lining. As we can see the medical meaning can be deciphered by breaking it up. So 'endo' refers to the lining, 'cardium' the heart and of course 'itis' inflammation/infection.

I hope this hub has given at least a little insight into the mysteries of medical jargon and terminology. Obviously one article can only skim the surface of a huge mountain of medical words. However, I hope it's perhaps given people a start on how to continue to build their knowledge and confidence with these - not so difficult - words.

© 2013 Helen Murphy Howell


Submit a Comment
  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Drifter USA, firstly my sincere apologies for taking so long to reply. I haven't been around Hub Pages for a couple of months or so. Also thank you for the lovely comment, I'm glad that you got so much out of it.

    As to books, I've chosen two American publications that in the USA people seem to find very useful:

    'Quick Medical Terminology - A Self Teaching Guide' by Shirley Soltesz Steiner and Natalie Pate Capps


    'A Short Course in Medical Terminology' byC. Edward Collins

    Hope this helps and once again many thanks for taking the time to visit my hub.

  • DrifterUSA profile image


    5 years ago


    It would be fair to state that you deserve every bit of praise you have received thus far concerning your incredibly fascinating article, which adeptly illustrates how the formulation of medical terminology came to fruition. As the user Paul Maplesden so accurately stated, with the greatest level of proficiency imaginable; you have simplified a topic that is quite complicated in nature and in doing so illustrated what a brilliant educator you are in the process.

    If you were to recommend a book which teaches one to understand the methodology employed in the construction of medical terms in the manner in which you so brilliantly teach in, which one would it be? I would love nothing more than a whole book which covers this topic with the utilization of your teaching style. If you have constructed such a work yourself, please do let me know as I would love to purchase it.

    Thank you again for this creation.


    A 33 year old man whom was fascinated by your article.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kosmo, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment - greatly appreciated!! I have to say I've always found medical and scientific vocabularly really interesting especially the way the words are constructed!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    LOL!!! Hi KoffeKlatch Gals - give your doctor a telling off for speaking so much jargon, he should know better! Many thanks for stopping by and for the vote - greatly appreciated!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, many thanks as always for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub! Yes, the dreaded letters are always written in medical jargon and can look very scary, when often it's something really simple.

  • Kosmo profile image

    Kelley Marks 

    6 years ago from California

    Back in 1997 I took a class in medical terminology and enjoyed it very much. It connected with two of my passions - vocabulary and science. Thanks for the meaty hub. Later!

  • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

    Susan Hazelton 

    6 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Awesome. For the first time in years I believe I will be able to understand what my doctor is talkig about without having to have him make it simpler. Up, useful, and awesome.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    6 years ago

    Thanks for the information on these medical terms. When you get those reports, you often get a little anxious when you see the prefix, suffix, etc. Knowing what they mean helps to bring a sense of calm to your mind. Very useful post.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rasma, many thanks for such a lovely comment - really appreciated and glad that you enjoyed this. As always, many thanks for the share as well!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    HI Paul Maplesden, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a nice comment - much appreciated!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, always lovely to hear from you!

    Well, I have to say that's one of the best comment I've ever received - a huge thank you!! To think that I was thinking about deleting this hub as I thought folks would find it too boring!! LOL!!

    Well done on the quiz! It's not everyone that picks up medical jargon quickly - so I'm very impressed!!!

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    6 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

    Voted up and useful. This is one terrific and informative hub. Thanks for sharing and providing all this info. Passing this on.

  • Paul Maplesden profile image

    Paul Maplesden 

    6 years ago from Asheville, NC

    Excellent hub - well thought out, easy to understand and throws light on something that many people would find difficult to understand.

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    6 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    This is awesome Helen, I found this so useful that I am going to bookmark it to come back to for reference. You should be a teacher, you make it all so easy to understand. I read this 3 hours ago and came back to take the test to see if it stuck in this brain of mine and pleased as punch I got 100%. Great hub... great teacher... awesome friend.

    Up and sharing


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