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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.

By Stacey Colino
The Layman's Guide to Medical JargonPhotograph: Charles Masters; Cover Illustration by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich


The translation: Two health conditions are present at the same time. Heart disease, for example, is one of the most common comorbidities in adults with arthritis. Comorbidities also go by the less scary-sounding terms coexisting and co-occurring conditions. The conditions aren’t always related, but the presence of one can often affect the treatment of the other, preventing the use of certain drugs or surgeries.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

The translation: One of the most commonly ordered blood tests, a CBC measures different blood components, including white and red blood cells, hemoglobin, hematocrit, and platelets. Abnormal results—counts that are either too high or too low—can suggest anemia, an infection, or numerous other disorders, including kidney disease and hepatitis.


The translation: There’s something going on, such as a symptom or an illness, that signals that a drug or a procedure should not be used. If you’re pregnant, for example, certain live vaccines (such as the nasal-spray flu vaccine and the oral polio vaccine) are contraindicated, because they could harm the developing fetus, says Jennifer Wider, M.D., a medical adviser to the Society for Women’s Health Research, a nonprofit organization that promotes women’s health.

Diagnosis of Exclusion

The translation: Some diseases, such as fibromyalgia, have no definitive test, “so diagnosis depends on typical symptoms plus making sure it’s nothing else,” says Robert Shmerling, M.D., the clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. The good news is that this type of diagnosis usually means scarier conditions have been eliminated as a cause of what’s ailing you.


The translation: Fluid accumulation under the skin or in a body cavity (you would call it “swelling”). It can be caused by many things, including pregnancy, varicose veins, and heart failure. Even sitting too long on a plane can cause edema in your feet.


The translation: Cells are being produced and are growing at a faster-than-normal rate. Sometimes it’s nothing to worry about (as with a callus on your foot); other times it could be a sign of precancerous changes that need to be investigated or watched (as with endometrial hyperplasia, which occurs in the cells of the uterine lining).


The translation: Not what was supposed to happen. When a treatment or a surgery causes an adverse effect—for instance, you develop a bacterial skin infection after having a mole removed—that new problem is considered to be iatrogenic.

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