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Published on September 30, 2013

Decoding Doctor Speak

September 30, 2013

For people who are not trained in medicine, medical terminology can be intimidating and hard to understand.

Many patients feel confused by the variety of scientific words, abbreviations, and acronyms. It all may sound like Greek – because much of it is! Most medical words are derived from either Greek or Latin. Terms related to surgery and diagnoses usually have Greek origins, while words referring to the structure of the body are often Latin-based. However, there is no need to feel overwhelmed.

The key to understanding medical language is to develop knowledge of some often-used roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Some medical terms have a prefix but no suffix, or vice versa, but there is almost always at least one root. An example is anemia, a condition of not having enough healthy blood cells, which can be caused by a loss of blood. The prefix is a, meaning lacking. Emia is a root that refers to blood. There is no suffix in this word.

Some medical terms have an extra component called a combining form or combining vowel. The combining vowel has no meaning. Its only purpose is to make the word easier to pronounce. Arthropathy is a disease of the joints. Arthr is a root word meaning joint, and pathy (or path) is a suffix that means disease. The o is a connecting vowel that makes the word easier to say.

Building a Word in Three Parts

The prefix and suffix each add meaning and specificity to the root.

For example, the word hypoglycemia has three parts: hypo-gly-cemia. The root is glyc, which refers to sugar (glucose). The prefix is hypo, which means low or deficient. Finally, the suffix, emia, refers to blood. Hypoglycemia is a condition of having of low blood sugar.

By learning the structure of medical language, it becomes easier to determine the meaning of any medical term.

Common Prefixes

Common Roots

Common Suffixes

dys (abnormal)

cardi (heart)

ectomy (cut out)

intra (within)

derm/dermat (skin)

itis (inflammation)

sub (under)

gastr (stomach)

scopy/scopic (to examine)

trans (through or across)

gyn/gynec (woman)

sub (under)


leuk (white)



neur (nerves)



tendin (tendon)



ven (vein)


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