Understanding Medical Terminology - what is it and where did it all begin?

By Nic 31 Jan, 2020 0 Comments

Medical Terminology is the language used by doctors and healthcare professionals and has been around for centuries.

Most medical terms are derived from Latin or Greek roots, we often say to our students that learning medical terminology is like learning a foreign language and here’s the proof!! Much of the medical terminology we use today is attributed to Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’ and Claudius Galen – a legendary doctor in the Roman Empire. Roughly three-quarters of medical terminology is of Greek origin.


Understanding medical terms can seem intimidating but they can be easily understood and deciphered if you know what you’re looking for. 


Medical terminology is structured into three primary parts:

The word root, the prefix and the suffix. The word root is generally located in the middle of the word and signifies the basic meaning.  Examples of roots are pancreato/ (pancreas), neprhr/o (kidney), and mamm/o (breast).

The prefix comes before the word root and tells us more about the root word. It may describe a position, a size or a colour. Common prefixes include:

·       a- (without/absent), for example aphagia (absent swallow)

·       peri- (around), for example pericardium (the membrane around the heart)

·       tachy- (fast), for example tachycardia (fast heart rate)

The suffix, at the end of a word, works as an inflectional ending that conveys definite features, including the circumstances, development and protocol regarding the condition. Common Suffixes include:

·       -ectomy (removal of), for example nephrectomy (removal of a kidney)

·       -itis (inflammation of), for example hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)

·       -ology (the study of), for example cardiology (the study of the heart).

The fourth component of medical terminology to consider is the linking or combining vowels which is added to the stem, when necessary to allow easy pronunciation, it is usually an “O” – if the suffix begins with a vowel then it is not required

 An example of a word with three of the above parts is the medical term is polyneuritis. It can be divided into three parts:-

Poly - prefix meaning “many”
Neur/o - root meaning “nerve”
itis - meaning inflammation

Thus poly/neur/itis means inflammation of many nerves. As the suffix begins with an “i” it does not require a combining vowel. Note : We start at the end of the word when deciphering i.e. start your explanation with "inflammation of " and then return to the beginning.

Similarly encephalogram can be divided into three word parts:-

En - prefix meaning “within”
Cephal/o - root meaning “head” ie the brain 
gram - suffix meaning “tracing or writing”

Thus en/cephalo/gram literally means a picture inside the head but means the brain .

The word pericarditis may similarly be broken down into three parts:-

Peri - prefix meaning “around”
Cardi/o - root meaning “heart”
itis - suffix meaning “inflammation”

Thus peri/card/itis means inflammation of the tissue around the heart.
Note the “i” at the end of “cardi” is dropped for easy pronunciation.

The letter “h” is also treated as a vowel when combining with another vowel or where pronunciation would be clumsy. For example the word anaemia can be broken down in three parts:-

An- prefix meaning “absence of ”
-haem root meaning “blood”
ia - suffix meaning “condition of”

Thus an/aem/ia literally means “lack of blood” but in medical terms it is the reduction of red cells or haemoglobin content in the blood.

Medical terms always consist of at least one root word but they do not always need a prefix or suffix. An example of this is the term sternocleidomastoid which is three root words stern (sternum) cleid (clavicle) and mastoid (bone behind ear) with a vowel in between to make the word easier to pronounce. The vowel is usually “O” but other vowels such as “I” and “A” are used. 

So next time you see a medical word that you’re not sure of, simply break it down into its component parts and, with our training to help you understand the main roots, prefixes and suffixes, you’ll be able to work it out!!



Older Post Newer Post
Share Tweet Share Send