Medical Terminology for Interpreting Medical Records

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Many attorneys have difficulty interpreting the medical field’s somewhat arcane terminology. It really is not that difficult when you consider that the word parts typically combine a stem word with a prefix and/ or suffix. As a simple example, let’s take the word basketball, composed of the stem word ball and the prefix basket, which modifies the meaning of the stem word ball.

Prefixes and suffixes help define the stem word. In the word radiologist, the stem word radio denotes the use of X-ray waves in diagnosis of illness while the suffix ology or ologist indicates the study of X-rays or a practitioner of X-ray use. We see similar examples of this in the terms hepat (of the liver), gastr (of the stomach) and arthr (of the joints). Thus, hepatology denotes study of the liver, gastrology denotes study of the stomach, and arthrology denotes study of the joints.

Today, many medical terms combine a stem word with both a prefix and suffix. A good example is the word osteoarthritis, a combination of the stem arthr (of the joints) with the prefix osteo (bone) and the suffix itis (denoting an inflammation). Thus, osteoarthritis means an inflammation of a joint and its associated bones. Similarly, chondritis means an inflammation of the chondro (cartilage), and tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendons, usually in an arm. Other examples include:

  • Intercostal from the stem costo (ribs) and inter (between) meaning between the ribs
  • Polyneuritis from the stem neuro (nerve or nerves), poly (many) and itis (inflamed) meaning the simultaneous inflammation of many nerves.
  • Encephalitis, denoting an inflammation of the encephalo (brain).
  • Anesthesia, where the stem esthesia means feeling or sensation and the prefix an means without or lack of, thus “without feeling or sensation.”
  • Cardiovascular, meaning “of the blood vessels and heart.”
  • Antero, meaning in front of or front part of. Combined with latero, meaning “to the side of ” gives us anteriolateral, meaning “situated to the front and one side.”
  • Scopy, meaning inspection or examination, as in bronchoscopy, an inspection or examination of the bronchi in the lungs.

Problems can arise when two medical terms ending in consonants are used together, such as the words muscul and skeletal. Most would find the combined word musculskeletal to be awkward, a situation that can be improved upon by inserting a combining vowel. In this case, we add an o, but any of the other vowels can be used and this makes the resulting term more practical.

A medical stem word can form the basis of several common medical terms. For example, the word arterio (artery) can be combined with the suffix sclerosis (hardening) to give us arteriosclerosis, meaning hardening of the arteries. Arterio can also be combined with malacia (softening) to give us arteriomalacia, meaning softening of the arteries. The stem thrombo (blood clot) can be combined with phlebitis (inflammation of vein) to give thrombophlebitis (inflammation of a vein with a clot of blood); similarly, the common treatment of this malady is thrombectomy, in which an incision is made to remove the blood clot.

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Many medical terms are common enough today to be recognized by the general public. Television advertising has made most Americans aware of postnasal drip, a drainage of the sinuses behind the nose, and hypodermic, meaning a needle used to inject medicine hypo (underneath) the derma (skin). Not quite so common are retrocardial (behind the heart) and subcutaneous (underneath the skin).

Many medical terms denote the absence of a condition, using the prefixes an or anti. In addition to the previously-mentioned anesthesia (without sensation or feeling) we have afrebrile (lack of fever) and antitoxin (against poisons or toxins).

Finally, some terms denote amount, comparison or position. Examples include:

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  • Poly – multiple, as in polyneuritis, the inflammation of many nerves.
  • Semi – half or part of, as in semiconscious, being half conscious.
  • Hypo – too little or too low, as in hypotension, or low blood pressure.
  • Hyper – too much or too high, as in hypertension, or high blood pressure.
  • Tachy – fast, as in tachycardia, or fast heartbeat.
  • Brady – too slow, as in bradycardia, or slow heartbeat.
  • Olgio – little or scanty, as in oligurea, little or scanty urine.

So, next time you see an unfamiliar medical term, remember to break down the word into its stem, suffixes and prefixes to get a clearer idea of its meaning. Janet Bailey Parker

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