How to Learn and Memorize Medical Terminology

Doctor helping patient with his head in the doctors office
Hoxton/Tom Merton / Getty Images

Some offices and clinics specialize in one field of medicine such as oncology or podiatry, while others such as general practitioners have a broader scope of care. While most medical office personnel, in either setting, will not necessarily have to know vast amounts of technical medical terminology, it is important to have working knowledge in order to effectively fulfill your duties in a medical setting.

How to Learn Medical Terminology

There are numerous resources online, college courses, books, and flashcards one can use to learn medical terminology. Every office will likely have a good medical dictionary and other resources handy for quick reference as well, but it really doesn’t take a lot for any layperson to gain an understanding of medical words as they relate to the human body and common medical practices.

Dissecting Medical Terms Into Prefix, Root, and Suffix

The easiest way to remember the unfamiliar, often tongue-twisting words, is to learn their parts—the prefix, root, and suffix. Nearly every medical word has all three of these parts, and they all have a root word because that is the core of the word and it carries the meaning.

The prefix is a letter or letters that are set before the root word to change or add to the meaning of the root. For example, if your root word is "likable" and you added the prefix un before it, it would change the meaning from something you might like to something you could not or would not like.

A prefix may also indicate a place, time, or number such as in the word "pregame." The prefix pre indicates that something will take place before the game, which is the root of the word "pregame."

The suffix is the letter or letters added to the end of a word that modifies the meaning. In the word "homeless," the suffix is less and it changes the noun home to indicate something is without a home. In the case of medical terminology, the suffix can also indicate a procedure, a condition, or a disease or disorder.

Examples of Medical Prefixes and Suffixes

Below are some common medical prefixes to help you demystify medical terms.

Ab - this one is easy as we can all relate to the word "absent," which means "not here". The prefix ab means away from, as in the word "abduction," which in medical lingo means “to pull away from the mid-line of the body”. This is easy to remember because when one is “abducted,” the person is taken away—usually by force. This dramatic image makes remembering the prefix ab easier, because the more startling, flamboyant, or silly you can make a memory device, the more lasting the memory will be.

The prefix arth gives an indication that the word will have something to do with a joint, as in "arthritis," which is swelling in the joints; or arthroscopy, which is a procedure where a tiny scope is inserted into a joint for the surgeon to determine the damage to the joint.

A suffix that is common in all medical practices is itis, which indicates inflammation is present, again as with the term "arthritis."

Another common suffix is ary, which means or infers pertaining to or connected with, as indicated in the word "convulsionary," which means of or connected with convulsions.

Ask to Clarify and Prevent Dangerous Misunderstandings

Learn the prefixes and suffixes will give you a good understanding of medical terms. The medical lingo, like the words to your favorite song, will become familiar to you as you hear them over and over.

However, just like your favorite song that you sing off-key along in your car, you can misunderstand the words sometimes. Misunderstanding the lyrics to La Bamba won’t cause nearly the problems that misunderstanding a diagnosis or a procedure will, so always ask if you are uncertain. If there is no one to ask, be sure to set the document aside until the meaning is clarified and the correct information can be handled accordingly.

Was this page helpful?