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Introduction to Medical Terminology

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What is Medical Terminology?

Medical terminology refers to the words and phrases which have been developed to describe the procedures, medications, instruments, anatomical structures, etc. used in the field of medicine. It is, in a very real sense, the language of medicine.

Medical terminology has a long and rich history. Most medical terms derive from Latin or Greek. So if at first medical terminology appears to be a foreign language - well... that's because it is! But don't despair. Like any language, the language of medicine adheres to a set of fairly simple rules.

The Structure of Medical Terminology

It may seem like an impossible task to commit the spelling and meaning of 100,000 different medical terms to memory - and in fact, for most of us it is. Fortunately, it is not necessary. The fact is that most seemingly complex medical terms are simply combinations of much smaller subsets of word parts. This is a critically important concept to understand with medical terminology.

It is not unreasonable to expect to memorize several hundred medical prefixes, medical suffixes and medical root words in a relatively short period of time. Then, once these word parts are learned, they can be combined to form literally thousands of complex medical terms.

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How are Medical Terms Constructed?

Most medical terms consist of one or more parts. These word parts may include one or more of the following:

  1. Root Words
  2. Prefixes
  3. Suffixes
  4. Combining Vowels

To help you better understand how this works, let's look at an example.

Consider the word cholecystectomy. At first glance, this word seems quite complex. Cholecystectomy, which means excision (removal) of the gall bladder, is really a combination of four different word parts. Let's break it down into its sub parts and see if we can figure out why it means what it means.

chol - e - cyst - ectomy

chol is a root word meaning bile or gall
e is a combining vowel (described in more detail below)
cyst is another root word meaning bladder
ectomy is a suffix which translates to excision or surgical removal.

Therefore, we can see that cholecystectomy is a combination of words which translate to mean surgical removal of the gall bladder.

Each of these word parts will be seen over and over in medical language. For example, the suffix ectomy is seen in such common terms as tonsillectomy (removal of the tonsils) and appendectomy (removal of the appendix). It is not hard to see that as you begin to commit these sub-terms to memory, you will be able to decipher more complex terms because you will recognize and understand their component parts.

Medical terms always contain at least one root word. And as we saw with cholecystectomy, they may have more than one root word. The root is the part of the word that comprises the primary meaning of the term. In the example of tonsillectomy, the root word is tonsil. The suffix is ectomy. The root word tonsil is capable of standing alone. The suffix ectomy, (meaning surgical removal) requires the root word tonsil to confer relevance. Prefixes and suffixes cannot stand alone. Medical terms may have, but are not required to have, a prefix and/or a suffix.

Combining Vowels

Combining vowels are sometimes used to create a more fluid transition between word parts and to make medical terms easier to pronounce. For example, the term splenomegaly means enlargement of the spleen. It is a combination of the root word splen meaning spleen, and the suffix megaly meaning enlargement. The "O" which follow the root word splen is a combining vowel which simply makes the word flow better.

The vowel used most often to combine medical words is "O", but other vowels are also sometimes used. It should be noted that combining vowels may be used between two root words, or between a root word and a suffix, but they are never used between prefixes and root words.

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