Healthcare 101: Medical Terminology for Beginners
Reviewed by Dr. Naguib Yaacoub, MBBS, NCMA, NCPT, NCET
September 20, 2022
If you’re new to allied healthcare, you’ve probably discovered a mountain of important medical words that you’re required to memorize. While it can be daunting, we’ve compiled some excellent tips and tricks to help you on your way.
Call it your “medical terminology cheat sheet” if you like, but as a healthcare student, you need to thoroughly prepare for your final tests and exams – let this list help up your knowledge, fast. Once you understand how to memorize the most common medical terms, everything else will fall into place.
Introduction to Basic Medical Terminology
Medical terminology refers to words used in medical contexts, and this specialized vocabulary can be difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with it. The following is an introduction to medical terminology basics that will help you navigate the world of healthcare.
As a future healthcare worker, it’s important to understand basic Greek and Latin roots. While they may seem incredibly complex at first, don’t worry: you already use ancient words every day (like automobile, multimedia, and video) – without even thinking about them!
Most medical terms consist of three basic components: the root word (the base of the term), prefixes (in front of the root word), and suffixes (at the end of the root word). When combined, you can define a specific medical term.
For example, the word “neuroblastoma” can be broken down this way:
“Neuro” - nerves
“Blast” - immature cell development
“Oma” - a cyst or tumor
How to Study Medical Terminology: Start at the Root
Almost every medical term consists of root words and likely uses prefixes (at the beginning) and/or suffixes (at the end) to modify the end result. Some of the most common roots in medical terminology words include:
Bronchitis = inflammation of the airways
carcinogenic = cancer causing
pericarditis = heart inflammation
cytotoxic = toxic to the cell
dermatitis = inflammation of the skin
Gastroenteritis = inflammation of the stomach and intestines
Gynecology = branch of medicine related to the female reproductive system
histology = study of tissue
hepatoblastoma = liver cancer
bad / harmful
malignant = growing, spreading
nephrotoxic = harmful to the kidneys
neuroblast = an immature nerve cell
mass / tumor
oncology = the study of cancer
bone / bony tissue
osteosarcoma = bone cancer
If you enjoyed learning about these terms and wan to apply them to real scenarios schedule a visit with us today!
Medical Prefixes You Should Know
Prefixes change the meaning of the original word: A prefix (in front of a word) can put an unknown word into perspective.
For example, if a word begins with “aden-” or “adeno-”, it should always relate to the glands.
The 50 Most Common Medical Prefixes
Co-, con-, com-
Related to cells
Beyond; outside of
Half; half of
Above; excessive; beyond
Below; beneath; deficient
After; following; behind
In front of; before
Through or across
The 50 Most Common Medical Suffixes
Studying medical suffixes is great because there are a lot fewer to memorize than prefixes! Medical suffixes typically indicate whether the word is a procedure, disease, condition, or part of speech (e.g. verb, noun, adjective).
For example, if you hear the word “adenocarcinoma”, the “oma” will inform you that a tumor is present. In this case, a cancerous tumor.
Some common medical suffixes include:
To expand; stretch
Related to blood
Recording of something
Small, possibly microscopic
Process or condition
Breakdown; deterioration; separation
Mass; tumor; cyst
Condition of bone
Emotion or disease
To control; stop
Create a new opening
Process of cutting; making an incision
When you understand where important medical terms stem from, it’s far easier to read patient charts, communicate with members of staff, and expand your knowledge.
Top 55 Medical Terms to Memorize
Now that you’ve learned some common root words (and the 100 most common medical prefixes and suffixes), you can start to move onto some common language used in healthcare.
Although this list of terms is far from exhaustive, it can still be used as the basis for a quickfire medical terminology test:
- Abatement: A reduction in the severity of symptoms.
- Abiotic: Unrelated to living organisms (physical, not biological).
- Abortive: When a disease is cut short.
- Abrasion: Damage to the skin caused by friction.
- Abruption: A sudden separation or breaking off.
- Acute: Denotes a condition causing a sudden, temporary illness or injury.
- Ambulatory: Also referred to as outpatient care.
- Analgesia: The removal of pain while a patient is conscious.
- Anatomy: The study of the structure of living organisms.
- Benign: An abnormal but non-threatening growth or tumor.
- Biopsy: The removal of tissue for examination under a microscope.
- Chronic: Long-lasting and recurring, as opposed to acute.
- Contusion: A bruise or minor injury that results from blunt force, such as falling.
- Compound fracture: A broken bone that pierces the skin.
- Compression: The application of pressure to stop bleeding or prevent further injury.
- Diagnosis: The identification of the disease causing a person's symptoms by analyzing tests and information.
- Edema: An abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in the internal body tissue caused by disease or injury.
- Epidermis: The outermost layer of skin.
- Etiology: The cause of a certain disease or condition.
- Exacerbation: Deterioration/worsening of a medical condition.
- Fracture: A bone break caused by force or injury.
- Genetics: The science dealing with genes, studying how they work together to make up heredity and affect characteristics passed down from one generation to another.
- Gland: An organ in the body that makes and secretes substances like hormones or enzymes.
- Hematemesis: Vomiting of blood.
- Hematology: Study, treatment, and prevention of blood diseases and conditions.
- Hypertension: High blood pressure.
- Idiopathic: Condition with an unknown cause.
- Intractable: Medical conditions that are difficult to treat or cure.
- Inpatient: A patient who stays in a hospital overnight or longer.
- Intravenous (IV): Into a vein (blood vessel).
- Lesion: A damaged area of skin, organ tissue or another body part caused by disease, injury or surgery.
- Malignant: Cancerous; likely to spread and cause death if not treated.
- Microbiology: Related to bacterial and viral infections.
- Neurology: Related to the disorders of the brain, spinal cord, or general nervous system.
- Outpatient: A person who receives treatment at a hospital but does not stay there overnight.
- Pathology: The study of disease processes and their effects on different body systems.
- Pharmacology: The science that deals with drugs and drug action in living organisms, including their effects and interactions with other chemicals in the body.
- Physiology: The study of the functions and activities of living organisms.
- Polyp: A small clump of cells, commonly on the lining of an organ.
- Prognosis: The probability that someone will get better after an illness or surgery.
- Referred pain: Pain felt in an area different from the actual source.
- Relapse: Return to a disease state after treatment has ended.
- Remission: Signs of the disease disappear temporarily or permanently.
- Sepsis: An infection that spreads throughout the body because of bacteria in the bloodstream.
- Stimulus: Triggers a physical and/or behavioral change.
- Subcutaneous: Either injected or naturally existing under the skin.
- Sutures: Stitches used to close wounds after surgery.
- Syndrome: A set of symptoms that indicate a certain condition, disease, or abnormality.
- Terminal: A disease that cannot be cured.
- Topical: Medicine applied to the skin externally rather than internally.
- Transplant: The transfer of living tissue from one organism to another.
- Triage: A system for prioritizing patients' needs based on the severity of their condition.
- Urology: Related to problems with the urinary tract or the reproductive system (in men).
- Vaccine: A substance that stimulates the body's immune system to produce antibodies against a specific disease-causing organism.
- Zoonotic disease: An infectious disease spread between animals and humans, such as rabies.
If you’re unfamiliar with some of these words, consider researching their roots with some extra help. You can also learn to say some tongue-twisting medical terms like a true professional. Additionally, check some useful tools and resources for medical terminology you can start applying in your studies now.
The Best Tips for Learning Important Medical Words
Medicine clearly has its own language, and understanding medical terminology lays a great foundation for practicing in any allied healthcare field.
Mastering this language is a complex task, but with the appropriate learning resources, valuable tricks, and dedication, there’s no reason why you can’t learn medical terminology quickly and effectively.
Use a Medical Dictionary to Look Up Medical Terms
Using an online medical dictionary is a fantastic way to enrich your understanding of meanings and use of medical terms. If a word is tripping you up, see where it’s derived from and how it’s pronounced. Is it used outside of the medical world? Can it be used as a verb or a noun?
Make or Use Flashcards to Learn Medical Terms
Science has discovered that people remember more when they write things down, which makes creating flashcards a great technique. If you’re trying to remember a term with a visual clue, why not use that on one side? If you simply want to test your current knowledge, use learning sites like Quizlet. Either way, repetition is your best course of action for building a robust mental list of medical terms.
Play Medical Terminology Games
There are a variety of online medical terminology games that can help you memorize your vocabulary words. Multiple choice, memory, and matching games shake things up a bit when things start to feel a bit overwhelming.
Nowadays, there are plenty of Android and iPhone medical apps that are designed exclusively for future healthcare workers.
Get Ahead in Your Future Allied Healthcare Career
Are you an allied healthcare student or considering a medical career? We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the medical terminology guides, classes, and books that will take your education to the next level.
Would you like to explore even more ways to make learning more enjoyable? Check out these medical YouTube channels and stay tuned to the latest news in the medical field.