Karin & David Henderson

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Maple Ridge, B.C.

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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
another explanation.

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: etymology
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 interest.

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 create.)

"HYPERHEPATSCOPY" "hyper hepat scopy" This could read to have high scoping or examination of the 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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