Pearson’s Comprehensive Medical Assisting, Chapter 4
There are no additional readings for this lesson.
Medical terminology plays a very important role in health care. Think of medical terminology as a kind of foreign language. It’s a language that people of a particular culture understand.
A common language in medicine is extremely important, because we could be dealing with the life and death of a patient. Can you imagine if, while treating a patient, every healthcare provider in the room spoke a different foreign language and couldn’t understand each other? That would be pretty scary, right?
If you’ve never spoken a language different from your own, all of this can seem daunting. However, just like any language, once you learn the basics it makes learning the rest seem easier. Before we talk about the basics of medical terminology, let’s learn about its history.
History of Medical Terminology
Medical terms as we know them today have deep roots in other languages, especially Greek and Latin. The oldest written source of medical language comes from the ancient Greeks. Even today, some of those early Greek words from the fourth and fifth centuries BC are still used. Many of the words have since had spelling modifications. For example, the word diarrhoea, meaning “through-flow,” is still used today as diarrhea.
Later, the Romans created new terms by using word parts of the Greek language and making equivalent Latin terms. This breaking apart of words and reassigning the parts to create other words is still a practice we use today.
Eponyms are medical terms named after the person who invented a surgical technique, discovered a disease or disorder, or had a disease or disorder. For example, Lou Gehrig’s disease is an eponym named after the famous baseball player.
Modern Terms and Acronyms
The medical field is always changing, with new illnesses and new ways to treat diseases and disorders always being discovered. These changes mean that the medical field must come up with new medical terms. In some cases, the new term may be an eponym, or it may be a completely new word. The medical field also uses acronyms, or new words formed by the first letter or first few letters of multiple words. One of the most popular acronyms is LASER, a modern term formed from the phrase “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”
Although we have medical terms made up of eponyms and acronyms, most medical terms are made up of word parts. “Word parts” simply refers to breaking apart the word into smaller parts and then defining the word based on those parts. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a medical term, you can often break the word down into smaller word parts and figure out the definition by knowing the meaning of the word parts. For example, the medical term intravenous is defined as “pertaining to within the vein.” Even if you didn’t know the meaning of this word, you could figure it out by knowing the meaning of the word parts.
In medical terminology, here’s how you would break down the word:
intra / ven / ous
intra: meaning “within”
ven: meaning “vein”
ous: meaning “pertaining to”
When you put the word parts together they mean “pertaining to within the vein.”
Different word parts are used in medical terminology:
You may be wondering how to create the break points in a word, how to assign the different word parts, and how to know what those word parts mean. Those are the things we’re going to cover in this lesson!
The word roots are the main part of a medical term and give the term its base meaning. All medical terms have at least one word root. In our term intravenous, ven- is the word root meaning “vein.”
Prefixes come at the beginning of a word and modify its meaning. Most medical terms don’t have a prefix, so don’t assume that the part at the beginning of a medical term is the prefix. In the term intravenous, intra- is the prefix meaning “within.”
Suffixes come at the end of the word, and they also modify the word’s meaning. In our example intravenous, -ous is the suffix and means “pertaining to.” Most medical terms have a suffix.
Combining vowels are vowels (a, e, i, o, u) that make medical terms easier to pronounce. Remember, most medical terms are made up of word parts from different languages. In one word, you may have a German word root, a Latin word root, and an English suffix. For example, in the medical term pathology, the “o” between path- and -logy is the combining vowel. If you take the “o” out, it makes the word harder to say.
Combining vowels are used between a word root and another word root or a word root and a suffix. They’re never used between a prefix and a word root. Not all medical terms have a combining vowel, but when there’s a combining vowel, it’s almost always an “o.”
An example of combining vowels can be found in the medical term osteoarthritis:
oste / o / arthr / itis
The “o” is the combining vowel between two word roots in this case: oste- and arthr-.
Combining forms are made up of the word part and the combining vowel. In our example osteoarthritis, oste/o is the combining form because it’s made up of the word root oste-and the combining vowel “o.” Combining forms only exist when a word has a combining vowel.
Analyzing and Defining Terms
Now that you have a better understanding of how medical terms are broken down into word parts, let’s take a look at the steps of figuring out what a word means.
The steps in understanding medical terms are
We’ve already discussed analyzing the term. It simply means breaking down the word into the different parts (if you can). Then, by assigning the meaning to each word part, you can figure out the meaning of the word, that is, its definition.
Let’s take a look at our example intravenous again:
intra / ven / ousintra: meaning “within”ven: meaning “vein”ous: meaning “pertaining to”
When defining the word you always start at the end, go back to the beginning, and then work your way forward from there.
As a medical assistant, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of anatomy and body systems. Our body is made up of groups of organs. When those organs work together for a specific purpose, it’s called a system.
The body systems are as follows: