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Basic Tips on Understanding Medical Terminology

By Cathy Elliott-Lopez
Women Alive, Los Angeles

January 2001

Living with HIV is a constant learning process. Not only are we forced to learn about the disease itself, but in many instances we must learn the medical jargon that is associated with it.

For those of us who lack a formal medical education, this is often a difficult process. I remember learning during early childhood that there were usually two, and sometimes three, different names for the same part of the human body. There was the common term, which we all learned, like head, arm, etc.; there might be a "kid's" term like "pinkie," and then there was the obscure "medical term." How many of us remember having this one pulled on us in the third or fourth grade? "Psst! Hey, your epidermis is showing!" Mortified, we invariably glanced toward our genital region assuming we had left something unzipped -- only to have the other kids laugh and shout, "Epidermis means skin!"

For the majority of us (unless we actually chose to pursue a career in the medical field) our vocabulary of medical terminology stopped growing after high school health class. I recall during the first few years after my diagnosis when I was striving to learn as much as I could about the disease. I attended countless medical updates and conferences only to come out feeling more ignorant than when I went in. It seemed like things that could have been said very simply using good old-fashioned English got twisted around with medical jargon.

But before we criticize the researchers, doctors, and medical professionals in general, we must realize that these powerful, and in many cases, brilliant people to whom we entrust our lives have spent years and years in school to learn this stuff. We really can't expect them to flip back and forth between their world and ours just like that. That's why we need to meet them halfway. It wasn't until I got a grasp of the lingo the docs were using that I started to understand what they were talking about, and in so doing, I began to take charge of my own care.

The Basics

To begin, it must be understood that most medical terminology derives from Latin or Greek. If you didn't study these in school, or even if you did, I suggest you visit the local library and check out a medical dictionary (or perhaps your doctor will let you borrow one). Dorland's Medical Dictionary is a handy one to start with. By no means will you become an expert overnight -- remember, it takes years for that. But at least if you can understand some of the words and how they're formed, you'll be well on your way toward making sense of what you read and hear at treatment updates regarding new medications and research data.

Start by looking at the whole word in question. For example "pancytopenia." Then break it down into its various parts. Pan-cyto-penia. In this example, pan means "all" or "total," cyto refers to cells, and penia indicates a deficiency. So the definition of pancytopenia is a deficiency of all blood cells. Got it? O.K.

Let's try another one. How about "lipodystrophy" (I know that's a favorite). Let's break it down. Lipo refers to fat; trophy is talking about growth or development. And anything with the word dys in it has an abnormality. So there it is! Lipodystrophy: An abnormal development of fat. Anyone for liposuction?

Here's an even simpler one, "leukocyte." We've already learned that cyto refers to cells. If you look up the definition of leuko, you'll see that it means white. So a leukocyte would be a white blood cell. Ta-Da! It should now be easy to figure out what leukocytopenia means. And if you knew that erythro means red, how would you say "deficiency of red blood cells" in medical-ese?

All right, so you're not as enthusiastic about this as I am. That's O.K. I'm sure as you gradually learn this stuff you will eventually come across some word (one that you hear all the time but never understand) and you'll be able to use this system to figure it out. I can hear you now, "Aha! So that's what perianal pruritis means. Cool."

Here is a list of commonly used medical terms to start you on your way:
Prefix/Suffix Example
a = an absence of a/vir/emia
(no virus in the blood)
alg(ia) = pain neur/algia
(nerve pain)
anti = attacks anti/retroviral
(attacks retroviruses)
contra = against contra/ceptive
(against conception)
cyt(e,o) = cell(s) macro/cyte
(big cell)
dys = abnormal dys/plasia
(abnormal growth)
emia = in the blood tox/emia
(toxins in the blood)
endo = inside endo/scopy
(examining the inside)
erythr(o) = red erythro/cyte
(red blood cell)
gastr(o) = stomach gastr/itis
(stomach inflammation)
gen(esis) = origin, new osteo/genesis
(formation of new bone)
glyc(o) = glucose (sugar) hyper/glyc/emia
(high blood sugar)
hem(ato) = blood hemato/logy
(study of the blood)
hepat(o) = liver hepat/itis
(liver inflammation)
hyper = high, elevated hyper/lipid/emia
(high blood lipid levels)
intra = within intra/muscular
(in the muscle)
itis = inflammation pancreat/itis
(inflammation of the pancreas)
leuk(o) = white leuko/penia
(deficiency of white blood cells)
lip(o) = fat lipo/dys/trophy
(abnormal fat development)
lysis = break up cyto/lysis
(breaking up cells)
mal = bad, poor mal/nutrition
(poor nutrition)
mega(lo) = large mega/dose
(large dose)
my(o) = muscle my/algia
(muscle pain)
osteo = bone osteo/pathy
(bone disease)
penia = deficiency osteo/penia
(deficiency in the bones)
peri = around peri/oral
(around the mouth)

Back to the GMHC Treatment Issues January 2001 contents page.

This article was provided by Gay Men's Health Crisis. It is a part of the publication GMHC Treatment Issues. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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