How to Understand Medical Terminology

by Serena Spinello
Medical terms are easier to understand when they are broken down into different parts.

Medical terms are easier to understand when they are broken down into different parts.

Medical terminology is derived from Latin and Greek and serves as a universal language in the health care arena. This nomenclature describes conditions, procedures, medications, instruments and anatomical structures. Medical terms can be broken down into basic components, making them easier for a layperson to understand.

Analyzing Medical Terms

Learn the different parts of medical terms by discovering their key components. Medical terms have three basic parts: prefix, root and suffix.

Identify each component in a term and the role it plays. The word root typically appears in the middle of the term and signifies its principal meaning, as explained on Des Moines University’s Basic Medical Terminology website. The prefix appears before the root and represents part of the term’s meaning, such as a particular location or area of the body. The suffix is found after the root and modifies the term’s central meaning.

Note that medical terms can employ compounds, also known as linking or combining vowels. The compounds are positioned in between the word components and help with pronunciation. The vowels “i” and “o” are the most frequently used combining vowels.

Print out and study a list of popular medical terms. Use a different color highlighter or pencil to identify and mark each term's root, prefix, suffix and combining vowel.

Observe the way different components are joined together to create medical terms and how the definitions change when the components change. Every medical term does not contain every component, just two or more of the parts (prefix, root, suffix, combining vowel).

Write down commonly used root words, prefixes and suffixes on one side of an index card and their definition on the other. For example, jot down the root words: acou (hear), adeno (gland), angio (vessel), bronch (bronchus), cardi (heart), cutan (skin), gastr (stomach), glycos (sugar), hem (blood), myo (muscle), neuro (nerve), ost (bone), nephr (kidney), patho (disease), pseudo (false/fake), rhino (nose), therm (heat), thromb (clot) and trophy (grow). Use the prefixes: anti (against), brady (slow), dia (thorough/complete), dys (difficult/labored/painful), en (within), hyper (above/excessive), hypo (below/deficient), mal (bad), myo (muscle), per (through), poly (many) and tachy (fast/rapid). Include suffixes such as: ac (pertaining to), ectomy (excision or surgical removal) emia (blood condition), eous (pertaining to), ism (state of), itis (inflammation), ology (study of), pathy (disease), pepsia (digestion), plasty (plastic or surgical repair) and plegia (paralysis).

Form medical terms by combining different prefixes and suffixes to your root words. For example, if you drew the prefix per, the root cutan and the suffix eous, you’ll form the term percutaneous (which is defined as something through the skin).

Things You Will Need

  • Medical terminology book (Suggested resources: "Medical Terminology Made Easy" by Jean Tannis Dennerll; "A Short Course in Medical Terminology" by C. Edward Collins and Ann DePetris; or "Quick Medical Terminology: A Self-Teaching Guide," by Shirley Soltesz Steiner)
  • Flash cards, index cards or paper
  • Colored pencil, pen or highlighter

Tips

  • To gain a fuller understanding of medical terminology, learn the different parts of the body (anatomy) and the way our body’s structures work together (physiology).
  • It also helps to learn the systems of the body: Cells/tissues/membranes, skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system and reproductive system.

About the Author

Serena Spinello holds two master’s degrees and is pursuing her Ph.D. in medical science. She has been a professional writer and researcher for over 10 years and is an active member of the American Medical Writers Association, Academy of Medical Educators, and the National Association of Social Workers.

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