Understanding Medical Terminology
A Little Bit More
Some time ago, I
wrote a short article on medical
terminology for people suffering from Meniere's Disease. I often find
myself helping people understand their medical "experiences": helping them
understand or translate their doctor's procedures. First I want to tell
you why it's important for you to know these terms or at least know where
to find the information. Then I'll give you a few "prefixes" and
"suffixes" and "root" words. These are the beginnings and endings and will
help you get an understanding of the meaning of the entire word. And
then I want to have a bit of fun with the whole process.
Understanding this medical terminology is particularly important when you
are dealing with consent forms for any kind of invasive procedure. You
MUST know what is going to happen to you. You are agreeing to something
that is going to happen to YOUR body. Something or someone is
invading the very interior of it. How can you possibly say "yes" to a
procedure if you don't know what the words mean? Luckily we now have
online dictionaries and encyclopedias. But often you are asked to sign for
a procedure in a doctor's office to save time and another appointment.
That's fair. Please understand that you have the right to take this form
with you and have it explained in terms you can understand it. If you
don't understand the first time, ask for
You also have the right to ask questions about possible side effects and
complications. But one of the problems I come across is the doctor/patient
relationship. Many people are afraid to ask a question for fear of
offending their doctor: for not "trusting them". Then they discover they
have consented to something they didn't even know was wrong with them.
Your doctor would probably assume you know more than you actually do, and
if it's your condition, it's always more personal. Therefore it's even
more important to make sure you understand. You are being asked to agree
that if you have one or more of possible complications, that you can "live
with them". In other words,
you have made arrangements to deal with the negative outcomes if they
occur. I have been corresponding with someone who is considering an
angiogram. (It's a procedure where with x-rays and special dyes and tools,
a specialist can take pictures of the blood circulating through your heart
muscles.) One possible complication is cardiac arrest (your heart
stopping). He was told it's very safe nowadays, but he still needs to
think it through. And by thinking it through, he will get his affairs in
order just in case he has a cardiac arrest during the procedure.
(You should do that anyway when undergoing any type of surgical procedure.
Nothing is 100% safe.) You need to find the courage to ask, even though
you would rather not... Let's move to the terminology and it's parts.
I'm speaking of those long medical terms and you, of course, may not have
any idea what they mean. You know the ones...lots of syllables and no
common sense? It's all Greek or Latin to you? In fact it's both, but
it's fairly easy to figure out if you know how to do it. I thought it
would be wise to get a real explanation of word development from a
dictionary. This comes directly from MERRIAM-WEBSTER
"Main Entry: et·y·mol·o·gy
Etymology: Middle English ethimologie, from Latin etymologia, from Greek,
from etymon + -logia -logy ***1 : the history of a linguistic form (as a
word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded
occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission
from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by
identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its
cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language 2 : a branch
of linguistics concerned with etymologies" What this really means is that
there is a reason for each "word" and phrase to exist.
There are basically three parts to a term...sometimes four. Each term can
have a part called a prefix (used at the beginning of the word), a suffix
(used at the end of the word), and a root word. A "root" word means it's
the "foundation": the root...of the entire meaning. A combining form is
one or two letters to help it to be pronounced or to flow better. A
"combining form" means it connects parts and is somewhere in the middle.
Not every medical term has all of these, but many do. Here is a "garden"
comparison. A sugar turnip has a root...the bulky thing stuck in the
ground or its seed. From the root, leaves shoot upwards and little shoots
go downwards. Each part has a purpose to act out: same with a medical
term. Water or soil would be a combining form.
Let's work through the word "tachycardia". This is where you have a fast
or rapid heart rate, measured when you "take your pulse" or count the
heartbeats by touching the outside of a blood vessel at your wrist.
Now, in order to figure out the meaning, you go to the
BACK of the word and find the end (suffix) meaning which could be "ia",
meaning "condition of". Then go to the FRONT and get the prefix..."tachy",
meaning fast. The root word is card...meaning heart. So this would
"literally" be a condition of a fast heart, but as a heart itself isn't
fast, but rather the rate is, it's a condition of a fast heart rate.
If this interests you, get a good dictionary and play
with this. Take some words and look at prefixes, suffixes, and the
root words, then check the meaning. You can create your own words. A good
dictionary will give you the meaning of the prefixes or suffixes. Medline
has good information.
Here is a link to a page of common
medical terms with their explanations that people suffering from Meniere's
Disease encounter regularly. I have included some of these terms so
you can see what you are faced with in a dictionary. It doesn't look very
organized, but it is. And the explanations are vital. Many times you have
the same word: different meanings. It's very confusing until you really
try to understand the entire process.
Please don't get too caught up in the absolute meaning here. It takes
professionals weeks to learn this. This is simply an overview for
I find the suffixes (the endings) to be much more interesting.
That's what really tells the true story. Prefixes often tell about the
location (pre or post), high/low (hypo or hyper), or frequency or amounts
(poly), one (uni) two (bi). Suffixes describe what is going on. It could
be a tumor (oma) or a incision into something (otomy) or a removal of
something (ectomy). Or it could be an examination of some part of the body
(oscopy). (Just as an aside, this kind of procedure has made a huge impact
on health everywhere. A scope checking into all sorts of body parts or a
"scoping" has shortened up procedures and helped with medical diagnoses
with minimal negative results to the patient. However this new and very
expensive technology has also changed and increased the cost of health
care.) If we go back to the consent forms for a minute, you need to read
it carefully for just this kind of wording. Be aware of the type of
procedure you are having. Is it "closed" as in just a "scoping" and maybe
removal of stones or will it be an "open" procedure which most likely take
much longer and will prolong the recovery time. Each has its own good and
bad points. Every possibility has to be on that consent form. You do need
to sign the consent, with full knowledge of what is going to happen AND
what MIGHT happen. One example would be going in to have your gallstones
removed through a scope and you wake up with a big scar. Later
you find out the stones were too large to get through the scope.
Again, ask if you don't understand.)
Let's continue and look at "root" words. Actually the term "word" is used
a bit loosely but when you deal with terminology, all parts of a "real
term" become their own word. Does that make sense? It's a lot easier to
call it that because all these parts are pulled from different languages
and create something unique. It's really quite fascinating once you
get the underlying idea. It's like cooking...add a bit of this and
that, and you have a new dish. We'll do several different "recipes" below.
Sometimes there are two root words such as "cholelithiasis". These
two root words are "chole" meaning bile and "lith(os)" meaning stone as in
"lithiasis". And it means something (a condition) having a stone. You can
have a gallstone (cholelithiasis) or a kidney stone. You can have stones
in your mouth's salivary glands but you can't have stones in your lungs or
your heart. I also haven't heard of liver stones.
Common terms are CHOLECYSTITIS. It mean to have gallstones (chole = bile &
cyst = bladder or sac). HEMOCHROMATOSIS means you have too much iron in
your blood Hemo = blood, chroma = color, and osis = condition of.
MENINGITIS is an inflammation or infection of the covering of the spinal
cord and the brain.
Let's use some of the terms in a fun way..a sort of recipe. We'll
just use a few of each group: prefixes, root words, and suffixes. I won't
bother with the combining forms. Our prefixes are hyper (high), pre
(before), dys (painful), poly (many). Our root words are liver (hepat),
lungs (pneumo), stomach (gastro), brain (neuro). Our suffixes are
ectomy (removal), scopy (looking into with an instrument), otomy (opening
into), ia (condition of), plegia (paralysis).
I've created these words and although they meet the criteria of placing
them in the right way, they are completely meaningless. In order to
use this medical terminology properly, you also need some understanding of
the different bodily functions and the
ability of the organ itself to do certain things. Common sense has to be
used in defining a diagnosis and thus the treatment. And please
don't ever take this as a diagnosis. It's simply meant to be a fun
exercise. (I do this for students who get stuck on the different parts of
a word and soon they relax and find enjoyment in something they can
"HYPERHEPATSCOPY" "hyper hepat scopy" This could read to have high scoping
or examination of the liver.you can't scope the liver except in very
special ways. Can you also see how this word would be very difficult to
pronounce? So using a combining form would be very helpful.
"DYS PNEUMO OTOMY" "dys pneumo otomy" This would mean making an opening
into painful lungs ..or making a painful opening into the lungs. Now you
could put a tube into the space between the lobes and the ribs, but it
would be a different procedure and also has a different meaning..
"PRE GASTRO ECTOMY" "pre gastro ectomy" This would mean a removal of the
part before the stomach.what could that be? The esophagus? That would then
be called and esophagectomy.rarely done.
"POLY NEURO PLEGIA" "poly neuro plegia" This would mean many or much
paralysis of the brain. MMMmmm.
Can you see how it all goes back to understanding your consent and what
could be planned for you? If your consent says someone is going to look at
your kidney (which one) and remove the stone(s) it doesn't give the
medical team the right to remove
your kidney. But would you know the difference? Probably, if you had a
really good in-depth understanding explanation. So insist on the
explanation and study some medical pictures. But it's still your body:
your decision. Your signature will be on that consent form. You have to
sign it and date it, and it has to be witnessed. And it has to show that
the doctor gave you clear explanations of the procedure. But it is your
responsibility to understand what is being said. So use all the tools at
your disposal: dictionary, questions, medical atlas. If you are now
going through some sort of procedure and are faced with something similar,
I want to remind you that you went
to your doctor to get help for something that is causing you grief. You
want that fixed. So make sure you know what is going to get fixed and not
be faced with still another problem. This is a partnership. Your
responsibility is just as important as your health care team's
responsibility. So do your part. The consent will show theirs.
By Karin Henderson - Nurse, Retired.
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