Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Medical Terminology - The Building Blocks

Learning medical English can seem a little overwhelming to begin with.  There is of course a lot of specialised medical vocab to get to grips with and some rather tongue twisting pronunciation.  I mean, just how do you pronounce the word anaesthetist? (click the link to the cambridge dictionary and click the red and blue icons to listen how).  I've been trying to get my head round this one for years!

Non-colloquial medical terminology contains a range of specialised vocab, used by health care professionals, to formally describe the human body (anatomy), medical conditions, medical procedures, fields of medicine and some items of medical equipment.

The fact that medical English boasts the longest word in any English dictionary suggests that the road to having a solid medical knowledge base could be a hard one. This is not the case. The aforementioned word is 'pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis', try saying that one when you've had a few piwos!  But what exactly does it mean and are all of the 45 letters absolutely necessary? Don't panic folks!  It's very unlikely that you'll hear this word used in everyday medical English. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as 'factitious' or 'made up', but its existence highlights a very important point, and that is of course, how medical words are constructed.

A lot of medical words originate from Latin or Greek and are made up of 3 very important components or building blocks.

1. Prefixes (are added at the beginning of a medical word and add extra information such as position, description and quantity)
2. Roots (are the main part or stem of the medical term and can be found at the beginning, middle or end of a word.  They mainly refer to bodily parts and processes, but also to colour, substance and description)
3. Suffixes (are attached to the end of a medical word to add meaning such as condition, disease process or surgical procedure)

So lets try it out.  How about the word dysuria for example, well if we know that dys- means difficulty (with something) and the suffix -uria denotes urine, then we can quickly work out that this is the term used when a patient complains of difficulty passing urine.  If a patient has blood in their urine then we call this haematuria, haem meaning blood.  Of course the study of the blood is known as haematology as the suffix -ology means the study of a particular field or subject.  A pattern begins to form.

So how about our lengthy friend pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis?  
Well, lets break it down.
pneumo = air/lungs
ultra = very/extreme
micro = small
scopic = see
silico = silicon
volcano = volcano
coni = dust
osis = functional disorder/disease

In other words it's a lung disease caused by breathing microscopic silicon dust found near volcanos.  Why are people so close anyway?  "Look out she's gonna blow!"

So how do you get to grips with it.  Believe me, learn the most common components and you'll be creating real medical words before you can say, "Sorry Mr. Jones, but i'm afraid we'll have to perform a sigmoidoscopy!"

You can find useful lists of prefixes and suffixes (known collectively as affixes) and medical roots on the internet.  The lists are usually quite long so we have put together the most commonly used, from our extensive hands-on experience in health care, and created 3 very useful worksheets, which once completed and learnt confidently, will give you a solid foundation to base your medical English knowledge on.  You could even create your own just like Everett M. Smith did with his 45 worder back in 1935.  Download our free terminology worksheets in order to learn the most common roots and affixes. Happy creating and learning :)  Any feedback is warmly welcome.  Check out our website for more free learning resources.