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What does that word mean? Understanding Medical Terminology

We have all been there - sitting at the doctor’s office, confused as to what the words before us mean. Medical terminology is often difficult to understand for an untrained ear. As we make more visits to see physicians, we tend to hear these words more commonly. So, what does cardiology, polyneuropathy and many other long words mean? Fortunately, there is a solution to finding out.

Delbert McCutchen, RN and director of Education at NARMC, has a few tips to offer to our patients about understand the words defining your health.

“Understanding the root word, prefix and suffix of the word is often the best way to grasp the meaning behind these terms,” McCutchen explained. “All medical terms get their meaning from a Latin word, which is the root term. Then, the prefix or suffixes are added to change the meaning or expand upon the term.”

Root words, as McCutchen explained, give hints about what the term is referring to. For example, cardio means heart. Therefore, you can conclude that cardiology is referring to the heart. Polyneuropathy is referring to the nerves.

Suffixes and prefixes are added onto the root word, either before or after, to further explain the term entirely.

Below is a list of common prefixes and suffixes you may see used in medical terminology:

A-An absence of





Hyper-High or elevated

Ology-The study of

It is-Inflammation

Poly-Many or multiple


Now, we see that cardiology is the study of the heart, and polyneuropathy means the disease of many nerves.

McCutchen also recommends using a medical dictionary. If you are encountering these medical terms often, investing in a medical dictionary may be a good idea. These dictionaries break down terms and often provide an easy-to-understand definition. Bringing these dictionaries with you to appointments could also be beneficial, allowing you to go over the definition with your physician for better clarification. Having a simple English definition for a complex term in the palm of your hand is always helpful.

Last, but not least, do not be afraid to ask your physicians or nurses questions. The staff at NARMC is well prepared and strives to ensure that you are not left confused about your health. If you are unclear about a term they are using, ask them to break the word down with you.

Understanding your diagnoses is a crucial part of your healthcare. Even though these words can seem daunting at first, they are not as scary when broken apart and explained. If you have any questions about the terminology used to describe your condition, contact your primary care physician for further explanation.

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No information or content on this website is to be taken as implicit or explicit advice. Please contact a medical professional for guidance.

Photos on this website are provided by Vowell Publishing, Inc. and NARMC.

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