Posted by Bill Sandweg on 01 February 2021.
In my job as an attorney representing victims of medical malpractice, it is critically important to be able to read and understand medical records and to be able to examine and cross-examine doctors, who appear as defendants or witnesses. Both of these tasks require familiarity with medical terminology.
When I first began doing medical malpractice work, I was intimidated by medical terminology. How was I ever going to understand all these terms? Turns out my concerns were unwarranted. It is easy to understand the terms when you realize they are all put together pretty much the same way.
Most medical terms consist of a prefix, a root and a suffix or some combination of them. For example, hyponatremia consists of a prefix, “hypo,” meaning not enough, a root, “na,” the abbreviation for sodium, and a suffix, “emia,” meaning in the blood. Hyponatremia, therefore, means there is not enough sodium in the patient’s blood. What if there is too much sodium in the blood? Easy. All we do is substitute “hyper,” meaning too much for “hypo” and we get hypernatremia, too much sodium in the blood.
“Hypo” and “hyper” are very common medical prefixes. You have probably seen them often. Hypotension and hypertension for low and high blood pressure. Hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia for too little and too much sugar in the blood. Hypoxemia for too little oxygen in the blood. Hyperlipidemia for too much cholesterol in the blood.
Other common prefixes are “hemi,” meaning half, “hemo,” meaning blood, “inter,” meaning between, “intra,” meaning inside, “retro,” behind and “post,” meaning after. “Brady” is too slow and “tachy” is too fast as in bradycardia, slow heartbeat, and tachycardia, fast hearbeat. Here is a link to a good listing of various medical terms. There is an even better one here from Wikipedia.
You have probably seen many of the most common medical suffixes as well. “Ectomy” means to remove something. For example, hysterectomy means the removal of the uterus and appendectomy means the removal of the appendix. “Otomy” means to create an opening. A laparotomy is an incision in the abdomen and phlebotomy is opening a blood vessel to take blood. “Itis” means inflammation. Vasculitis is inflammation of the blood vessels while myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle. “Edema” is swelling. Lymphadema is swelling of the lymph glands. “Plasty” is the molding or shaping of something due to surgery. Arthroplasty is a form of joint repair. “Pathy” is usually some sort of a disease process. Cardiomyopathy means something wrong with the heart muscle. Retinopathy is something wrong with the retina in the eye.
The root words, some of which appear in the picture above, generally identify body parts to which the prefixes and suffixes will apply. “Cardio” is heart, “remal” is kidney, “hepato” is liver, “myo” is muscle, “hemo” is blood and “derma” is skin.
A list of all or even most of the common medical terms is well beyond the scope of this post. The point I want to make is that these are pretty simple constructs that should not be intimidating. Just take your time and break the terms down into their constituent parts. You will find them easy to grasp. Then you need to work on your pronounciation.