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Basic Tips on Understanding Medical Terminology

Fall 1999

For the majority of us, 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 formalized medical education this is often a difficult process. I remember learning early on during childhood that in reference to the human body there were usually at least two, sometimes three different names for the same part. There was the common term which we all learned like; head, arm, etc. 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!" Invariably we glanced mortified towards our genital area assuming that we had left something unzipped only to have the other kids laugh and tell us that "epidermis means skin!" For the majority of us (unless we chose to pursue a career in the medical field) our vocabulary of medical terminology dropped off after high school biology class. I recall during the first few years after my diagnosis, I strived to learn as much as I could about the disease. I attended countless medical updates and conferences only to come out feeling more confused than I was when I went in. What in many cases could have been said very simply by using good old fashioned English, got twisted around with medical jargon, (I guess it's what separates them from us. Talk about a language barrier!) Before we criticize the researchers, doctors, and medical profession in general, we must realize that these powerful, and in many cases brilliant people in whom we entrust our lives to on a daily basis have spent years, and years, and years in school to learn this stuff. We can't really expect them to flip back and forth like that. That is why we need to meet them half way. It wasn't until I got a grasp on the lingo that they were using, that I began to understand what they were talking about, and in so doing, I began to take charge over my own care.

The Basics

To begin, it must be understood that most medical terminology derives from Latin or Greek. If you didn't take it in school, or even if you did, for the purpose of learning I suggest you visit the local library and check out a medical dictionary (or perhaps your Doctor will let you borrow one) The Physicians Desk Reference is a great 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 towards making sense of what you read and hear at conferences and updates regarding new medications, and research data.

First you must look at the whole word in question. For example "pancytopenia". Break it down into the various parts; the prefix, the root, and the suffix. In this example, pan is the prefix (meaning all). The root is cyto, referring to cell(s), and penia is the suffix (meaning a deficiency). So the definition of pancytopenia is: a deficiency of all blood cells. Got it? O.K. Well lets try another one. How about lipodystrophy (I know that's a favorite of everyone). Let's break it down: lipo means fat, trophy is talking about growth or development. Anything with the word dys means abnormal. So there you have it. Lipodystrophy: an abnormal development of fat! Try an easy one: carcinogenic. Carcin means cancer, genic is another way to say "causing" so "Cigarettes are carcinogenic", right?

Here's an even simpler one, Leukocyte. We already learned that cyte/cyto means cell, and if you look up the definition of leuk you will find that it means white. So Leukocyte would be a white cell. Ta Da!! O.k. So you're not as enthusiastic about this stuff as I am. That's alright. I'm sure that as you gradually learn this stuff eventually you will come across one of those words... (the one that you hear frequently but never really understood what it meant) and you will be able to use this format to figure it out and say "Ah Ha! So that's what that is; Cool."

Common Terms

The following is a list of very commonly used medical terms to start you on your way. Good Luck!

a = an absence of, ex: a/vir/emia
aden(o) = gland, ex: adeno/pathy
alg = pain, ex: neur/alg/ia
angi(o) = vessel, ex: angi/oma
anti = against, ex: anti/retro/viral
arteri(o) = vessel, ex: arterio/gram
auto = self, ex: auto/immune disorder
cerebr(o) = brain, ex: cerebro/spinal
contra = against, ex: contra/ceptive
cyt(o) = cell, ex: macro/cyte
dys = abnormal, ex: dys/plasia
emia = in the blood, ex: tox/emia
encephal(o) = brain, ex: encephal/itis
endo = inside, ex: endo/scopy
erythr(o) = red, ex: erythro/cyte
gastr(o) = stomach, ex: gastr/itis
glyc(o) = glucose(sugar), ex: hyper/glyc/emia (high blood sugar)
hem(ato) = blood, ex: hemato/logy
hepat(o) = liver, ex: hepat/itis
hyper = high, ex: hyper/lipid/emia
intra = inside, ex: intra/muscular
itis = inflammation, ex: pancreat/itis
leuk(o) = white, ex: leuko/penia
lip(o) = fat, ex: lipodystrophy
mal = bad, abnormal, ex: mal/nutrition
mega(lo) = large, ex: mega/dose
mening(o) = membrane, ex: mening/itis
my(o) = muscle, ex: my/algia
myc(o) = fungus, ex: myc/osis
opsy = to view, ex: bi/opsy
osis = condition, ex: fibr/osis
path(o,-y) = disease, ex: neuro/pathy
penia = deficiency, ex: neutro/penia
oma = tumor, ex: lymph/oma
peri = around, ex: peri/oral
phleb = vein, ex: phleb/o/tomy
plasia = development, ex: dys/plasia
rrhe(a) = flow, ex: a/meno/rrhea
scopy = examination, ex: colpo/scopy
terato = birth defect, ex: terato/genic/ity
thromb(o) = clot, ex: thromb/osis
tox(i) = poison, ex: tox/emia
troph = development, ex: a/troph/ic
vas(o) = vessel, ex: vas/cul/itis

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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.