Medical Terminology

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Medical Terminology


Medical terminology is a system of words that are used to describe specific medical aspects and diseases. It is based on standard root words, prefixes, and suffixes.


Medical terminology has evolved in great measure from the Latin and Greek languages. During the Renaissance period, the science of anatomy was begun. Many early anatomists were faculty members in Italian schools of medicine. These early anatomists assigned Latin names to structures that they discovered. This tradition has continued. For this reason, Latin accounts for the majority of root words in the English language.

Some names for conditions were retained from the teachings of Galen (a.d. 130–200), a Greek physician who wrote texts on medicine in the later part of his life. These remained influential for almost 1,500 years. Many of the disease and condition names first used by Galen have been retained. This accounts for the fact that the second most common source of medical root words is the Greek language.

Other older roots have their origins in Arabic. This is due to the fact that Arabic scholars were important teachers of medicine through the middle ages. Some modern roots are taken from the English language. This reflects the pre-eminence of the English language in medicine and biomedical sciences for the past half century.

The Latin language adds suffixes to nouns to denote different syntax constructions. Since suffixes were commonly used by Italian scientists, their use in medical settings were also retained. Some prefixes are adaptations of Latin words. In medical descriptions and terminology, they were attached to root words rather than being separate from the word that they were modifying. Prefixes are often used to indicate locations on the body or directions relative to planes or structures in the body.

Some words in modern medical terminology have been borrowed from biology. Many of these are names of genus and species of pathogens. The use of Latin for these names dates to Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who founded the modern system of taxonomy.

Finally, from approximately 1650 through to 1850—while the system of medical terminology currently in use was being developed—Latin was the language of educated persons. This is another reason for the inclusion of so many linguistic elements (prefixes, roots, and suffixes) from the Latin language.

An example will illustrate how the system works. Consider that task of describing the movement of a finger and its associated structures. Two sets of muscles are involved. Extensors move a structure away form the body while flexors bring the same structure back towards the body. The fingers are called digits. A problem arises with realization that there are three bones in the fingers. Structures that are nearer to the center of the body are referred to as being proximal, whole structures that are farther away are distal. A muscle that move the smallest bone in a finger towards the palm is called a flexor digiti minimus. Thus, an accurate description of a person curling the small finger is action by the flexor digiti minimus on the distal phalanx of the fourth finger. Uncurling the same finger requires action by the extensor digiti minimus on the distal phalanx. While this system may seem cumbersome, it is precise and unambiguous.

Consider another example: an adenocarcinoma of the left superior lobe of the lung. The root (carcin-) indicates tissue that is cancerous. The suffix (-oma) indicates a tumor or abnormal growth. The prefix (adeno-) pertains to a gland. Thus, there is a abnormal or cancerous growth that has its origins in a glandular cell. The remainder of the description indicates the location of the growth. The designation (left) is in reference to the person who has the growth or is being examined, not the person who is performing the examination. Superior indicates the upper of the two lobes of the left lung.

Medical terminology is also employed when describing diseases or procedures. As an example, review acute pancreatitis in the posterior portion of the organ. The root (pancrea-) indicates the organ of involvement, the pancreas. The suffix (-itis) indicates an inflammation. Acute denotes a rapid onset, as contrasted to chronic which is of long duration. Posterior refers to the portion of the pancreas that is to the rear of the body. This portion of the organ is also called the head of the pancreas. This illustrates another important aspect of medical terminology, that there is frequently more than one way to accurately describe a location or structure.

An example of a procedure is a choledocholithotomy. This is a surgical operation to remove (-otomy) a stone (-litho-) that originated in the gall bladder (chole-) but is currently located in the common bile duct (-docho-). An hysterosalpingogram is an x-ray image (-gram) of the uterus (hystero-) and Fallopian tubes (-salpingo-).

The rules for combining prefixes, roots, and suffixes are generally based on Latin. In the Latin language, nouns have five different cases and can be singular or plural. Different endings indicate the form and meaning of the word. To make things more confusing for individuals who have not studied Latin, there may also be different forms of a word. The nominative singular form of the word for Fallopian tube is salpinx. The combining root is salpingo-. There are examples of combining forms in English. The plural of index is indices, the plural of apex is apices. As in Latin, English has different forms. Indexes is an acceptable plural form. The rules for words that come from Greek are quite similar although the endings may vary.


One of the keys to medical terminology is learning a list of common prefixes, root words, and suffixes. Once that task is accomplished, constructing and understanding previously unseen words becomes possible. The system does not eliminate a medical dictionary but it does facilitate learning and communication.

In many respects, medical terms form a language that must be memorized and mastered. A second key to acquiring proficiency in medical terminology is practice with applications. This task is not fundamentally different than developing skill in a sport or learning to play a musical instrument.

Early anatomists and modern surgeons both share a need for precision in description. The system of medical terminology currently in use provides such details. Taken together, the system of prefixes and suffixes provides great precision and specificity.

Professional implications

A working knowledge of medical terminology is an absolute necessity for success in any of the medical sciences. It is highly useful for individuals who interact with medical professionals. Although knowledge of classical Latin or Greek is no longer the prerequisite for medical training as it was 50 years ago, knowledge of Latin eases the burden of learning much modern medical terminology.


Ab-— Prefix meaning away from.

Ad-— Prefix meaning to or toward.

Caudal— Toward the tail or rump.

Cranial— Toward the head.

Distal— Toward the periphery of the body.

-itis— Suffix meaning inflammation of.

Myo-— Root word meaning muscle.

Ophthalmo-— A root meaning eye.

-osis— Suffix meaning an increase when referring to a pathogenic condition.

Proximal— Toward the center of the body.



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Medical Terminology

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