How to Learn Medical Terminology

An understanding of medical terminology is one of the most basic skills you will need if you have decided to pursue a career in nursing or medical technology. You will read it in your books, hear it from an instructor, and most definitely see it on your tests. Medical professionals may take this knowledge for granted, but the truth is that people, including patients, often do not know the meaning of many of these medical terms. You probably already know that most of the information in the universe is only as far away as the nearest computer or smartphone, but you can give yourself a jump start, rather than waiting until you actually need this information. To get you started, here is a guide to understanding common medical terms and a few brief definitions, as well as some information about where to find reliable resources on the Internet.

First, learn your major organ systems and terms for different parts of the body. For example:

  • cardio: heart
  • derma: skin
  • hepatic: liver
  • mucosal: mucous membranes
  • naso: nose
  • neuro: nerves
  • osteo: bones
  • pulmonary: lungs/respiratory
  • renal: kidneys

Next, know that there are common prefixes and suffixes. Here are few:

  • a-: without
  • bi- : two
  • -algia: pain
  • ante- : before, or forward
  • endo- : inside, or within
  • dys: unusual, painful, difficult 
  • -itis: inflammation
  • hyper: too much, excessive
  • hypo: too little, insufficient
  • -megaly: an enlargement
  • supra: above
  • tachy: fast

Next, learn which words signal location or time, such as:

  • extra: outside of
  • lateral: at the side
  • pre: before
  • post: after
  • supra: above

And finally, learn some of the terminology that health professionals encounter every day:

  • acute: sharp or sudden
  • auscultation: listening with a stethoscope or other device
  • constriction: narrowing
  • dilation: widening or expanding 
  • edema: swelling
  • emesis: vomiting
  • erythema: redness
  • febrile: pertaining to fever
  • H&P: history and physical
  • percussion: to tap
  • pharma: relating to drugs
  • respiration: breathing
  • spasm: sudden muscle contraction
  • subcutaneous: under the skin

Once you understand how basic medical terminology works, then when you hear a word like "tachycardia," you will remember that "tachy" means fast, and "cardia" refers to the heart, and know that the reference is to a fast heartbeat. When a doctor says that a patient is afebrile, you will be able to understand that the patient does not have a fever.

When searching the Internet for reliable sources of medical information, look to the websites of trusted medical institutions, or even the government's National Institutes of Health, which has a plethora of medical information available. Even better, invest in a medical dictionary of your own, so the information you need is right at your fingertips.

Tags: healthcare, Healthcare and Medical, LPN, medical technology, nursing, Registered Nursing

Karen N. Brown, MSHA

About Karen N. Brown, MSHA

Karen Brown is a freelance writer specializing in content for the health professions, but her writing projects have been quite varied in subject. She graduated from The University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Philosophy, and a Master of Science in Health Administration. For nearly 20 years, she worked at UAB, an academic medical center, most notably as a division administrator for a large, international HIV/AIDS program. She also has considerable knowledge in federal research regulation. Karen lives in Alabama's Birmingham metropolitan area. View all posts by Karen N. Brown, MSHA →