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Basic Medical Terminology Used by Medical Assistants

Charts read like Sanskrit without a strong grasp of basic medical terminology. As healthcare professionals, medical assistants must learn the lingo. You won’t have to sound like a walking dictionary, but you need to know the most common terms found in surgical reports, treatment notes, and medication orders to do your job effectively. We’ll help you get started. First, let’s look at what a Medical Assistant does using these medical terms.

What Do Medical Assistants Do?

Medical assistants perform clinical and administrative tasks in healthcare settings, such as:

  • Rooming patients
  • Updating health histories
  • Taking vital signs
  • Administering medications
  • Drawing blood
  • Performing diagnostic tests
  • Stocking exam rooms
  • Ordering supplies
  • Billing and coding
  • Communicating with patients

Learning the jargon is imperative.

If you’re intimidated, don’t worry, it doesn’t happen overnight, but most terms can be understood by how they’re put together. With a combination of prefixes, suffixes, and root words, you can figure out what they mean without memorizing long lists of terms.

The word hyperglycemia, for example, is a mouthful, but it’s easy to define when broken down into parts. The prefix hyper-, for example, means high, the root word glyco- means sugar, and the suffix -emia means in the blood. Put it all together and the word hyperglycemia means high blood sugar.

You’ll use this simple method over and over again to build on this simple list of medical terms and abbreviations.

Basic Medical Terminology

During a medical assistant program, you will start off by learning about prefixes, suffixes, and root words. These will help you decipher many of the medical terms that you will use on the job. Then you will learn about common diseases and disorders, then learn about medical tools and equipment, followed by medical tests and procedures, finally learning abbreviations and acronyms. Understanding the basic medical terminology will help you be a better medical assistant.


Here are some of the basic prefixes that will help you learn medical terminology:

A- or an-: A- or an- means without. Atypical, for example, means without a pattern. Anemia means without blood, and asymptomatic means without signs or symptoms.

Anti-: Anti- means against. An antibody fights infection. An anticoagulant prevents clotting.

Arthro-: Arthro- means joint, an arthropathy is a joint disease while an arthroplasty is a joint replacement.

Dys-: Dys- means something is abnormal or painful. Dysuria is painful urination. Dyspnea means difficulty breathing.

Hyper-: Hyper means high or excessive. As in the above example, hypercholesterolemia means high cholesterol. Hyperplasia means excessive cell growth.

Poly-: Poly- means many or excessive. Examples include polyuria, having to urinate too many times, or polydipsia, excessive thirst.

Vaso-: Vaso- refers to blood vessels. A vasoconstrictor, for example, is a medication that narrows blood vessels. A vasodilator is a drug that makes them wider.


Here are some of the basic suffixes that will help you learn medical terminology:

-algia: -algia means pain. Cervicalgia, for example is neck pain. Neuralgia, a combination of neuro – meaning nerve and -algia meaning pain translates to nerve pain.

-blast: -blast means immature. A common term on lab reports, a cytoblast is an immature cell.

-edema: -edema means swelling. Lymphedema, for example, is a swelling caused by lymphatic fluid.

-gram: -gram refers to diagnostic tests. As a medical assistant, you’ll take electrocardiograms, tracings of electrical activity in the heart.

-mega or -megaly: -mega means large. Someone with splenomegaly has an enlarged spleen.

-ology: -ology means a field of study. You’ll see it in reference to specialists. An oncology practice treats cancer. A cardiologist treats heart disorders.

-plasty: -plasty refers to a surgical repair. Blepharoplasty, for example, is the surgical correction of the eyelid.

-scope: -scope refers to an instrument used to visualize unseen body parts. An ophthalmoscope, for example, peers into the eyeball.

Root Words

Root words reflect the primary meaning of a term regardless of whether they appear at the beginning or in the middle of a term. Common roots word include:

Abdomino-: Abdomino- refers to the abdomen. An abdominoplasty is a tummy tuck.

Cardio-: Cardio- means heart. A cardiologist sees heart patients. Cardiomyopathy is an enlargement of the heart muscle.

Esophageo-: Esophageo- refers to the esophagus, the tube through which food is swallowed. Esophageal reflux means the backward flow of gastric juices through the esophagus. A transesophageal echocardiogram is a visualization of the heart through the esophagus.

Gastro-: Gastro- means stomach. A gastrointestinal illness refers to a disease of the stomach. A gastroenterologist is a doctor who treat stomach and intestinal disorders.

Hemo-: Hemo-, hema- or hemo- mean blood. Hematology, for example, is the study of blood disorders. Hemodialysis is a blood cleansing procedure.

Neuro-: Neuro- means nerve, as in neuropathy, a pain disorder affecting the nervous system.

Osteo-: Osteo means bone. Osteoporosis means a loss of bone density. Osteoarthritis means a bone-related arthritic condition.

Common Medical Disorders

This handful of terms is so common that it’s easier to memorize.

Abrasion: A mild scrape affecting only the surface layers of the skin.

Abscess: A pocket of pus caused by infection.

Acute: A condition that comes on suddenly.

Angina: Chest pain due to lack of blood flow to the heart muscle.

Bradycardia: A heart rate below 60 beats per minute.

Benign: A harmless or non-cancerous condition.

Biopsy: A small tissue sample taken for testing.

Cerebrovascular Accident (CVA): A stroke.

Chronic: A recurring or persistent condition.

Cyanosis: Blue skin due to lack of oxygen.

Diagnosis: The identification of a condition or disorder.

Fracture: A broken bone.

Hypertension: High blood pressure.

Hypotension: Low blood pressure.

Ischemia: Lack of oxygen, referring to tissue, like heart muscle.

Malignant: Meaning cancerous.

Myocardial infarction: A heart attack.

Sepsis: An infection so serious that it spreads body-wide and can lead to organ failure.

Thrombosis: A clot obstructing blood flow.

Medical Tools and Equipment

These terms is also common and it’s easier to memorize them.

Autoclave: A pressure sterilizer

Endoscope: A thin flexible tube equipped with a camera.

Foley: An indwelling urinary catheter.

Needle Driver: An instrument used to hold a needle for suturing skin.

Pulse Oximeter: A fingertip device used to measure peripheral oxygen saturation.

Sphygmomanometer: A blood pressure device.

Stethoscope: An instrument for listening to heart and lung sounds.

Common Tests and Procedures

These are some of the basic medical terms that describe common tests and procedures that a medical assistant will be involved in:

Blood culture: A test used to find bacteria in the bloodstream.

Blood pressure: A measurement of the force blood exerts against blood vessel walls.

C-section: Short for cesarean section, the surgical delivery of a baby through the abdominal wall.

Dialysis: A procedure used to remove waste products from the bloodstreams of patients with kidney failure.

Intubation: The insertion of a throat tube to help a patient breathe.

Laparotomy: An exploratory surgery

Lumbar puncture: Withdrawal of cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal cavity for testing.

Thoracotomy: Surgery on the chest cavity

Toxicology screen: An analysis of drugs in the bloodstream

Ultrasound: A diagnostic imaging technique using high-frequency sound waves.

Venipuncture: Drawing blood from a vein.

Approved Medical Abbreviations

Some phrases are broken down into medical abbreviations as they are easier to remember and note on a patient’s chart. Medical abbreviations that medical assistants use include:

ALOC: Acute Loss of Consciousness

BMI: Body mass index, a calculation of body fat based on height and weight

BP: Blood pressure

CHF: Congestive heart failure

CPR: Cardiopulmonary resuscitation

DNR: A do not resuscitate order telling providers not to perform CPR or other life-saving measures.

ED/ER: Emergency department or emergency room.

EMS: Emergency medical services.

LFT: Liver function tests

HR: Heart rate or pulse

KUB: A diagnostic test visualizing the kidneys, ureter, and bladder

MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a diagnostic imagining technique using magnetic waves

NICU: A neonatal intensive care unit for premature infants

NPO: Nothing by mouth, meaning not to eat or drink

OR: Operating room

PT: Physical therapy

OT: Occupational Therapy

ST: Speech therapy

STAT: Meaning right away or immediately

UA: Urinalysis

Drug Abbreviations

Some additional abbreviations will help you remember the names of different drugs and can also be used in a patient’s chart. Drug abbreviations that medical assistants use include:

APAP: Acetaminophen or drugs containing acetaminophen

ASA: Aspirin or an aspirin-containing medication

NSAID: a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication

CAP: A capsule

GTT: A drop

IM: Intramuscular, referring to an injection given in a large muscle

IV: Intravenous

BID: Twice daily

TID: Three times daily

QID: Four times daily

PRN: Meaning take as needed

PO: Take by mouth-to-mouth

PR: Take rectally

Rx: Referring to a prescription medication

SC: Subcutaneous, referring to an injection given under the skin

Final Thoughts

Did learning basic medical terminology used by medical assistants interest you? Ready for a new career in the medical assisting field? If you don’t know all the prefixes, suffixes, and root words just yet, the good news is you will have plenty of time to learn them during your medical assistant classes at Hunter Business School. We teach you the knowledge and skills you need to become a successful medical assistant.

Want to Learn More?

The Medical Assistant Program at Hunter Business School prepares competent, entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills), and affective (behavior) learning domains required for professional practice. The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a real medical setting where you can foster professional relationships with actual patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in an actual medical environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.

Contact us today to find out more on how to become a medical assistant on Long Island.