'Medspeak' doesn't have to be befuddling foreign tongue

October 02, 1990

Your doctor says you have hypertension. Does that mean you should learn to manage stress? No -- it means you have high blood pressure. And why does phlebitis (fle-bi'-tis) refer to inflammation of the veins rather than a bug bite?

Welcome to the world of "medspeak." One of the worst barriers to doctor-patient communication is the simple fact that physicians sometimes seem to talk in a different language.

But there is a logic to medicalese.

Most terms are based on Latin and Greek words. The root word is the "heart" of the term. It usually refers to body parts or biological substances.

A prefix placed in front of the root changes its meaning. The root usually ends in a vowel, to connect it to a suffix. A suffix at the end of the term usually modifies or describes the root.

Most medical terms begin with a prefix, but some start with a root or even use more than one root.

The next time you encounter a cumbersome medical term, break it apart and check a dictionary for a definition of the Latin and Greek elements that make up the term. Two useful references are Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary and Stedman's Medical Dictionary.

To get you started, try the quiz below:

Translate these terms using the parts listed at right:

***Word**************Prefixes**************Root words*******Suffixes

1. Amenorrhea*******a-, an- (without)******cardi/o (heart)**-algia (pain)

2. Neoplasm*********neo- (new)*************cephal/o (head)**-emia (blood)

3. Tachycardia*****tachy- (fast)***********leuk/o (white)***-orrhea (flow)

4. Visceralgia*****************************lip/o (fat)

5. Cephalalgia*****************************men/o (menses)

6. Leukemia********************************plasm/o (growth) *******************************************plast/o (repair)

*******************************************rhin/o (nose)

*******************************************viscer/o (gut)


1. Absence of menstrual periods

2. New growth (as in tumor)

3. Rapid heartbeat

4. Painful gut

5. Headache

6. Excess white cells in blood

Reprinted from the September 1990 Mayo Clinic Health Letter, with permission of the Mayo Foundation of Medical Education and Research, Rochester, Minn. 55905.

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