A Decoder for Common Medical Terms

Sometimes your doctor’s language is more complicated than your condition. Here’s how to decode all those technical terms so you can feel a little better—and understand a lot more.

Photo by Photograph: Charles Masters; Cover Illustration by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich

Wish you could hire a translator fluent in doctorese to come along on your office visits? Then you would know whether those cryptic clinical terms are actually something to worry about. (And when you’re nervously sitting in a paper robe, everything sounds like something to worry about.) Fret no longer: This handy dictionary demystifies the most common jargon you’ll hear from the people in the white coats—and can stave off a serious case of misunderstanding.


The translation: Symptoms or conditions that occur suddenly and/or last a relatively short time—meaning days or weeks, not months. Example: You may have an attack of acute back pain after rearranging the furniture.

Architectural Distortion

The translation: You’re going to need another mammogram or ultrasound. The term (occasionally used in other contexts but primarily used in breast imaging) simply describes an abnormal arrangement of tissue on the image. “It can be due to a problem with the breast, or it can be that the breast just looks different because it got bunched up during the mammogram or ultrasound—like when you accidentally iron a wrinkle into your pants because you didn’t flatten the material smoothly,” explains Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., the director of the breast cancer prevention program and a professor of medicine at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina.


The translation: You don’t have any symptoms, even if an imaging procedure or a lab test indicates that you have a condition. For example, if you have asymptomatic strep, you have an infection but don’t feel it.


The translation: Your symptoms, condition, or lab-test results are not completely normal, or “classic.” That is neither expressly bad nor expressly good—the adjective just means that it’s different. Atypical can describe moles, chest pain, pneumonia, depression, or cells on a Pap test.


The translation: Tiny calcium deposits are sometimes seen on imaging studies of the breast, joints, blood vessels, or other tissues. How the calcifications are clustered and how big they are can help determine whether they’re a normal result of aging or a sign of cancer or heart disease, says Davis Liu, M.D., a family physician with the Permanente Medical Group, in Sacramento, California. If there’s any question, you may need a more sensitive diagnostic test.


The translation: Your problem is longstanding or comes and goes frequently over an extended, indefinite period. The term is often used to describe degenerative diseases, like arthritis. For instance, you may have chronic knee pain because the cartilage in that joint has worn away due to overuse, age, or genetics.