Doctor Decoded: 12 Word Tricks to Help You Understand Your Doctor

Appendicitis, tonsillitis… why do so many words end with -itis?

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You might feel like you need a Latin class to understand your doctor—and in fact, it’s not uncommon for people who plan to become health professionals to take Latin classes to support their future careers. Luckily, you can save yourself some time and just learn a few key word tricks to help you decode medicalese, or the medical terminology your doctor uses.

You likely learned about word roots, prefixes, and suffixes in elementary school, and Latin-based medical terminology uses these word parts to form some of its most common words. Medical jargon often looks intimidating, but it can easily be broken down into its individual word parts.

Look for these common medical prefixes to better understand your doctor:

  • Words that start with gastro- relate to the stomach and digestive tract. Examples include gastroenteritis (commonly known as the “stomach bug"), or gastroenterologist (a physician who specializes in disorders of the digestive tract).

  • Words that start with cardio- relate to the heart. Examples include cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle), or cardiograph (a device that records heart activity).

  • Words that start with pulmon- relate to the lungs. Examples include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (a lung disease causing shortness of breath), or pulmonary embolism (a blockage, usually a blood clot, in the arteries of the lungs).

  • Words that start with my- or myo- relate to muscles. Examples include myocardial infarction (literally, “death of heart muscle,” or the medical term for a heart attack), or myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle).

  • Words that start with onco- relate to cancer. Examples include oncogene (a mutated gene that can lead to tumor growth) or oncologist (a physician who specializes in cancer treatment).

  • Endo- means “inside.” Examples include endoscopy (a procedure that uses a small camera to see inside the digestive tract) and endometrial cancer (cancer that begins in the inner lining—the endometrium—of the uterus).

  • Exo- or ecto- means “outside.” Examples include ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus) or exophthalmos (when the eye bulges outward).

These are just a handful of common prefixes used in medical terminology. Now, here are the common suffixes to look for in your doctor’s vocab:

  • Words that end in -itis relate to inflammation. Examples include appendicitis, tonsillitis, conjunctivitis, or vaginitis (inflammation of the appendix, tonsils, eyes, and vagina, respectively). Learn more about what inflammation is here.

  • Words that end in -algia relate to pain. Examples include fibromyalgia (a syndrome with chronic and widespread muscle pain) or gastralgia (a fancy word for stomach pain).

  • Words that end in -pnea relate to breathing. Examples include sleep apnea (a sleep disorder characterized by disrupted breathing) and hypopnea (a partial blockage of the airways).

  • Words that end in -opathy simply refer to a disease. Examples include retinopathy (a disease of the retina that leads to blindness) or psychopathy (a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy and manipulation).

  • Words that end in -emia relate to blood. Examples include anemia (a lack of healthy red blood cells) or leukemia (a cancer of the white blood cells).

You can probably decode several words simply by knowing these word parts. For example, cardiomyopathy contains three word parts: cardio- (heart) plus myo- (muscle) plus -opathy (disease). Indeed, this is a disease of the heart muscle.

Learning how to decode medicalese can be empowering, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your doctor questions if you don’t understand something they have said. Healthcare professionals spend a lot of time thinking and talking in medical terminology, and sometimes they forget what’s jargon. They want you to understand them, so if they say something that’s totally foreign to you, ask!