Thursday, January 26, 2012

Medical Jargon Decoded (part 1)

It occurred to me, as I was emailing a family member, how many medical terms, sub- and pre-fixes, etc. I take for granted. I do so because I've been a science grad student for more years than I care to admit. So I thought I'd take a stab at trying to demystify some medical jargon so that it easier for patients to understand. I don't believe in a "doctor knows all" approach, as you may have gathered, and strongly support patient education programs. So here's a (very) limited science-to-english decoder.

Prefixes (or beginnings of words):
  1. Cyto-: Means something to do with cells of some kind. 
  2. Nephr-: Something to do with the kidney.
  3. Hepat-:  Same, but with the liver.
  4. Myo-: Same, but with muscle.
  5. Leuko-: Same, with white blood cells (see below)
  6. Erythro-: Same, with red blood cells
  7. H(a)emat-*: Something to do with blood in general. 
  8. Neuro-: Associated with either the brain itself, or the more general nervous system. This can be split broadly into three: Central Nervous System: (CNS) means the brain and spinal cord. Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) means all the other nerves. Autonomic nervous system overlaps with CNS to some extent, and means all the things that the brain and nerves do automatically: reflexes, controlling breathing and pulse, etc.
  9. Rheuma-: Oddly enough, this comes originally from "rheumatic fever," one of the first known autoimmune diseases. Rheum- refers to all things autoimmune, in general. Odd fact: "rheum" also means "a cold" in French. Odd, but there it is.
  10. Brady-: This means something is going too slowly in the body. Often used as in "bradycardia," which means a too-slow heart beat.
  11. Tachy-: This means the opposite. It means something (like the pulse) is going too quickly.
  12. Myelo-: Oddly enough, this can refer to either the bone marrow or the spinal cord.
As you start to see, these terms are where many, if not all, the specialties get their names.

Subfixes (or things tacked on to the end of words):
  1. -cardia: means "heart." See above "Bradycardia" example.
  2. -(o)cyte: this is a subfix that just means "cell". Erythrocyte: red blood cell. Leukocyte: White blood cell, etc. Cells are the basic bulding blocks of the body, so using "X-cyte" allows a doctor to specify exactly what kind (s)he is speaking about. This is much like Cyto- in the prefix list.
  3. -itis: This is a subfix that means "inflammation." Nephritis: inflammation of kidney, hepatitis: inflammation of liver, etc.
  4. -penia/-penic: This means a lack in whatever precedes the "penia" Leukopenia: Low white blood cells.
  5. -(o)crit: Count. So, as you see above, h(a)ematocrit* means blood count.
As you can see, you can combine many of the above. Some examples:
  1. Someone who is thrombocytopenic: (literally "platelets + low") is someone with a low platelet count. 
  2. Someone who is leukopenic has a low white blood cell count...same idea.
  3. Hepatocyte: Hepat (or liver) + ocyte (or cell) = a liver cell
  4. Nephritis: Nephr (kidney) + itis = inflammation of the kidney
  5. Myocarditis: For real mix-and-match fun. Myo (muscle) + card (heart) + itis (inflammation) = inflammation of the muscles of the heart.
    General medical terms and/or abbreviations:
    1. Idiopathic: This is a scientific way of saying, "We have no idea why the hell this is happening."
    2. WBC: white blood cells. These are the cells that fight germs or, in the case of autoimmune diseases, our own bodies. However, this is a very general term that encompasses many different kinds of cells: neutrophils, lymphocytes, natural killer cells, etc. 
    3. Leukocyte: Same thing as WBC, just a snottier way of saying it. 
    4. RBC: You guessed it, Red Blood Cells. Also called Erythrocytes.
    5. Neutrophils: A kind of WBC that acts as a first line of defense against invading infections. Also, unfortunately, one of the blood cells that gets hits the most quickly by chemotherapy. 
    6. Platelets: The kind of cell that stops bleeding and heals wounds. Also called thrombocytes, these happen to be my particular screwed-up immune system's favorite thing to destroy. 
    7. Malignant/Malignancy: Refers in some way to cancer.
    8. Carcinogenic: Capable of causing cancer.
    9. Teratogenic: Literally "Monster creating," this refers to chemicals, drugs, etc. that may result in serious birth defects in an unborn child if the mother is exposed to them during pregnancy.

      Final Note:
      I'm sure that there are tons of commonly used words, pre-, or sub-fixes that I've totally missed. Please let me know if there are any you particularly would like to know about, and I'll update the list! Also, if this still seems like an impenetrable list of confusingness, please let me know, and I'll do what I can to clarify things.

      *Note: the use of (a) in some places differentiates the British/Irish spelling from the American spelling. Americans tend to drop a lot of vowels that they still use on the other side of the pond.


      1. thankou sam we love your stories posts blogs as all ways i feel great about haveing ou to educate us your education is a blessing to maney glad if we have to be a lupie to have you as are sister educator friend hugs

      2. I hope this was helpful. It's really hard to de-jargon things that are inherently technical!

      3. One of my favorite, and most useful, undergrad courses was Greek and Latin for pre-meds. That I never went into medicine is beside the point.