What Was That Again? Medical Terms Demystified

It’s an all-too-common scene…doctor explains diagnosis, treatment and follow-up instructions…patient and family nod in affirmation…then leave the office having no idea what was just said.

While the medical community’s scientific lexicon is perfectly understood amongst each other, the complex jargon often leaves patients and family members scratching their heads. This misunderstanding can lead to missed tests, improperly used medications and worsened patient outcomes.

Just how prevalent is poor “health literacy”? According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, nearly nine out of 10 adults have difficulty following routine medical advice, largely because it’s often incomprehensible to average people.

Here’s a brief sample of medical terminology – and the plain-language meanings – you might hear in the examination room:

ACUTE – Sudden, rapid severity, ending after a short course

ANEMIA – Decreased red blood cell count

ARRHYTHMIA – Irregular heartbeat

CHRONIC – Slow progressing, persisting over a long period

DYSPNEA – (disp-ne´ah) Shortness of breath

EDEMA – Fluid accumulation causing swelling

FEBRILE – Having a fever

HYPOTENSION – Low blood pressure

HYPERTENSION – High blood pressure

HYPERGLYCEMIA – Excessive sugar in the blood

HYPOGLYCEMIA – Low blood sugar

MYALGIA – Muscle pain

NEURALGIA – Pain along the path of a nerve

SYNCOPE – Fainting

This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of sophisticated medical terminology. While there has been a movement for medical practitioners to simplify lingo, patients need to be proactive in their communication with medical professionals.

Before you leave your doctor’s office, understand the answers to these three questions:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

Comprehending conditions, and the risks, benefits and potential complications of any treatment you may be advised to follow is vital to improving health outcomes.

The bottom line: If you are confused by something a medical professional tells you, ask them what they mean.

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