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.
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.
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.
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.
The translation: There’s no identifiable reason why you came down with an illness or a condition. (Many doctors will say its origin is “idiopathic” rather than the less official-sounding “We have no idea.”) A synonym: “of unknown etiology.” In fact, HIV was at first considered idiopathic. Because scientific findings continue to advance, “the list of idiopathic diagnoses is smaller than it was a century ago,” says Liu. “But even today many problems still don’t have a definable cause.”
The translation: A spot in a tissue or an organ that was caused by disease or injury. Lesions are sometimes benign artifacts from past health problems. Other times they need to be investigated.
The translation: Death of tissue, which can be caused by infection, trauma, or toxins. The most infamous example: necrotizing fasciitis, a.k.a. flesh-eating bacteria, which grabbed headlines last spring when a young Georgia woman caught the infection and lost her hands, a leg, and a foot after cutting her leg in a fall from a zip line. Necrosis is also heard in conjunction with aggressive cancer or can refer to wounds that aren’t healing, says Liu.
No Clinical Reason
The translation: There’s no medical reason, based on symptoms and available information, to continue treatment, therapy, or hospitalization, because “continuing would probably provide no further benefit,” says Liu.
The translation: A small clump of cells that forms on a muscle, a tendon, a joint, or some other tissue, usually in response to an injury. A nodule frequently doesn’t cause or indicate trouble.
The translation: The study of the causes and effects of diseases. Your doctor might refer to a “pathology report” after she gets the results of a biopsy following a suspicious Pap test.
The translation: Relating to the body. A doctor might suggest that “your headaches and fatigue are somatic manifestations of stress,” says Shmerling. Treating the root of the problem is important, however somatic symptoms should be tackled directly, too. In this case, you would ask your doctor to help you find a way to control the headaches and the fatigue while you’re figuring out how to manage the stress.
The translation: The most beautiful word heard at a doctor’s office, it’s another way to say “normal” or “without abnormalities.” Other terms that mean you’re OK: “negative” and “within normal limits.” Whew!
What’s in a Name?
Learn these common prefixes and suffixes and you’ll be able to interpret plenty of words—without paying for med school.
DYS-: A condition that is abnormal, painful, or otherwise problematic. Examples: dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation); dyspepsia (abdominal pain).
HYPER-: Excessive, or increased beyond normal. Examples: hypertension (high blood pressure); hyperpigmentation (increased pigment in the skin).
HYPO-: The flip side of hyper-, hypo- means “too little.” Examples: hypoglycemia (excessively low blood sugar); hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid).
-ITIS: Inflammation, often caused by infection or injury. Examples: arthritis (inflammation of the joints); sinusitis (inflammation in the sinuses).
-OMA: Often refers to a tumor, which could be benign or cancerous. Examples: melanoma (a serious form of skin cancer); lipoma (a benign fatty tumor).
-PLASTY: From the Greek word plastos, which means “molded.” In medicine, -plasty applies to surgical procedures that repair, restore, replace, or improve the body. Examples: angioplasty (a procedure that opens blocked blood vessels); rhinoplasty (surgery that alters or reshapes the nose).