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Top 10 Confusing Medical Terms Explained

by RG Loxton
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Ever heard a doctor use terms like “tracheotomy,” “dysphagia,” or “haematopoiesis” and thought, “What in the world does that even mean, and how did they remember it?” You aren’t alone. Even medical professionals themselves can struggle to learn these terms at first. However, once you understand how these words are made, learning them gets a whole lot easier.

Medical language is built almost entirely on affixes, additions to a word that gives it a specific meaning. For example, in regular language, you often hear “anti-,” which you probably know means “opposed to.” When a product comes out on the market called “antifreeze,” you go, “Hey! That must stop or prevent freezing.” These cues help us navigate the language, and it does the exact same thing in medicine.

10The Dreaded Captain ‘-Itis’


Photo credit: Jambula/Wikimedia

This fun-loving word means “inflammation.” Inflammation of course sounds like fire, and it also feels like fire because it kind of is. It is the process by which a part of your body swells, gets all red and puffy, and usually burns like you got on the wrong side of a hornet nest (in fact, that may be exactly what happened to you). This is due to your body sending tons of fluids with all manner of healing properties to the affected site, and as more fluids arrive, the pressure increases, the area swells, and things get all hot and bothered.

Now you know that if your general practitioner tacks “-itis” onto another word, you can discern that something is inflamed (which, in all honesty, you’d probably already know because it burns like an SOB). You most likely have heard “-itis” preceded by “bronch-” or “derma-,” which mean “bronchioles” (those branch-like tubes that stretch down into your lungs) and “skin” respectively. So if your skin is all red and swollen, it is dermatitis. If your coughing has irritated the bronchioles and it feels like your lungs are burning, it is bronchitis.

Here is the tricky business with “-itis”: While it may tell you that something is inflamed, it won’t tell you why or how it got that way. Bronchitis is a symptom, not a cause. It could be caused by anything. A cold might make you cough, which injures the bronchioles, which makes them inflamed—or maybe you are a heavy smoker and have done some damage—or maybe you are a maniac who drank bleach. “-Itis” tells you none of those things.

9From The Greek Word “Haima,” Meaning Blood


This one has a lot of variations like “hemat-,” “haemato-,” “haem-,” and “hem-,” which all refer to blood, and “hema-” and “hemo-,” which specifically mean “blood.” If you are an alien and are unaware, we humans are big on blood. We need it big time. So when a doctor says “hee-muh” or “hee-moh,” you know that something is up with your blood.

One “hema-” disorder to watch out for is hematemesis. This is when you vomit blood or there is some blood in your vomit. There are a multitude of reasons one could vomit blood, and the bad news is most of them are very dangerous. These include but are not limited to: bleeding ulcers (holes in your stomach), tumors in the stomach or esophagus, hemorraghic fever (your brain is bleeding due to an infection causing a fever), and my personal favorite: severe radiation exposure. Hematemesis is a sign of some very dangerous conditions, and if you’re thinking, “Hey! I just vomited blood this morning after eating some Frosted Flakes,” please stop reading this and go to the hospital.

8You Are What You Eat


Photo credit: Volker Brinkmann

Here is a fun one. “-Phagy” refers to the act of feeding upon whatever word precedes. This term is used widely in biology to describe the diets of many animals and insects. For example, coprophagy is a nasty habit that plagues fuzzy little rabbits and involves them eating their own feces.

Hopefully you recognize the prefix on “hematophagy.” Hematophagy is the act pf consuming blood, the pastime of some of our favorite novel, TV, and movie characters. In animal biology, this crops up with unfortunate frequency, from Desmodus rotundus the vampire bat, which laps up the blood of sleeping mammals after cutting them with razor sharp fangs, to the ire of every human ever, Culicidae. the mosquito.

7No Job? You Have An-Income


The prefix “a/an-” is one of those things that’s everywhere, but you never noticed it.

A good example of this is “anaerobic” and “aerobic,” which you’ve probably heard mentioned. This specifically relates to work done by cells that require oxygen. Aerobic processes require oxygen. Anaerobic exercises, which don’t require oxygen, are of a higher intensity and will lead you to fatigue more quickly. If your doctor prescribes some exercise of either type, you will know what he or she is talking about.

6Try A Junk Food-Ectomy


The suffix “-ectomy” is attached to what is being cut out of you. A common way you may have heard this is an appendectomy, which involves removing an appendix, usually due to appendicitis. “What’s appendicitis?” you ask. Really, you forgot already? Go back to the start of the article.

Another good example, and one that makes a man like me cringe, is a vasectomy. This procedure involves the clamping of a tube called the vas deferens that connects the testicles to the urethra and allows the passage of sperm. Once it’s clamped, it’s “goodbye, swimmers.” However, semen will continue to be produced and released during ejaculation. It is possible that trace sperm are still kicking it in the urethra after the procedure, so patients must still use contraceptives until there is no sperm detected in their urine.

Fun fact: The body still produces sperm despite the cutting of the vas deferens, but it is simply reabsorbed by the body. You can decide for yourself if that is cool or creepy.

5A Pumpkin Pie-Otomy Is My Favorite


Related to the “-ectomy” is the suffix “-otomy.” Instead of cutting out, an “-otomy”cuts into. A perfect example of this might be something you would see in a hospital soap opera. When someone has an allergic reaction and can’t breathe, the trachea (commonly referred to as the “windpipe”) would be cut open to clear the airway. This procedure is called a tracheotomy.

Another one you might have heard of is a gastrotomy. If you can figure out what is being cut into here, 10 points to Gryffindor! (Just kidding. If anyone is going to cut into your stomach it would be Ravenclaw; they seem to be the scientifically minded ones.) Note that a gastrostomy, however, is the insertion of a feeding tube through the abdomen, so mind the “s.”

4A Whole New Meaning For Cold-Hearted


“Cry(o)-” translates to “cold” in Greek and is used in procedures and for afflictions. One such example of this is a cryoablation, which involves destroying tissue for the benefit of the patient.

This is one I’ve actually experienced, when my super ventricular tachycardia was limiting my quality of life. For some background information, this is a condition in which the highest ventricular chamber of the heart produces an abnormally fast heart rate. (“Cardia” means heart and “tachy” means rapid—those are a couple bonus affixes for you.) To fix this, I went under for a procedure called a catheter ablation, in which a tiny tube with a camera is inserted into a major artery and reaches the heart. Once it’s there, the problem cells are destroyed with cold or heat (in my case, cold).

3Dys-Pepsi, The Discomfort In Drinking Pepsi


One word you are bound to hear in your life is “dyspepsia.” The prefix “dys” means anything bad, difficult, abnormal, or defective. The other half, “-pepsia,” means digestion. So this term ends up being used for a host of problems relating to digestive discomfort. This can encompass a range of problems like nausea, heartburn, indigestion, and upset stomach (though not diarrhea, which would complete Pepto-Bismol’s famous symptom list).

2This Is Bound To Be Epi-C


“Epi-” refers to something being on or upon. There are many examples of this and generally are involved in treatments. An epidural, for example, is often performed on women giving birth. It is an injection of painkillers through the lower back onto the nerves, which then become desensitized. These nerves carry signals from the uterus to the brain, and by deadening the nerves before they complete their path, voila, no pain.

Note that an epi-pen is not an example of this prefix as “epi” here refers to epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, a hormone produced naturally. In the case of an epinephrine injection, the hormone is concentrated.

1Just Drink Water


“Hepat-” and “hepatic-” mean “of or pertaining to the liver.” The study of the liver is hepatology, and the most famous medical term with this prefix is hepatitis.

Please tell me you remember what “-itis” means—oh good, you do. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Types A, B, and C are the most common of the infectious types and the ones everyone should be vaccinated for at some point in their life. Many causes of non-viral hepatitis have also been discovered, such as toxic hepatitis caused by chemicals and autoimmune hepatitis, in which the body’s immune system attacks the liver. There’s also my preferred method, alcoholic hepatitis, caused by overconsumption of alcohol. All of these can temporarily or permanently damage the liver, causing scarring labeled as cirrhosis. Other consequences can include liver cancer, liver failure, and of course no medical warning is complete without death.

Next time you see your friends, throw a few of these terms around. Then you can seem smart and sophisticated. Your secret’s safe with me. However, if you attempt to do this with your doctor, symptoms may include scorning, stink eye, and loss of physician.

My name is Rick Loxton. I am a 21-year-old small town guy with a penchant for writing and a bad habit of spending far too much time on the Internet. I can be reached socially on my twitter account @RG_Loxton. Thanks for your time.

fact checked by Jamie Frater