A while ago I went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.There are many interesting exhibits in this museum such as slides made of Einstein’s brain and the bullet that killed President Lincoln. During my visit I saw an exhibit comprising a human skeleton. The skeleton belonged to an army veteran named Peter Cluckey who before his death in 1925 at age 43 donated his remains to the Museum. The unfortunate Mr. Cluckey had developed a disease that led to the stiffening and fusion of every joint bone in his body. The disease was severe chronic progressive ankylosing rheumatoid arthritis and spondylitis.
Most people are bewildered by some of these medical terms. Medical names can be indeed vexing, even for clinicians. The first few months of medical school involve learning a new language which medical students need to master to be able to participate in the diagnosis of diseases. In medicine, most terms for anatomical names or procedures are composed of Greek or Latin roots combined with prefixes and suffixes. For example the word pericarditis is made up of the prefix “peri” (meaning around), the root word “card” (heart), and the suffix “itis” (inflammation). Thus pericarditis means “inflammation around the heart”. It describes the inflammation of a layer of tissue called the “pericardium” which surrounds the heart. Additionally, as new diseases are discovered and new procedures are developed, new terms are generated which more often than not end up shortened to acronyms (for example, AIDS is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). At the same time, some of old terms fall out of use. For example, the term “apoplexy” has been replaced by the term “stroke”. All of this generates great complexity, but it is something that most doctors seem to master, even if the patients are often perplexed.
In principle, terms used for medical diagnosis should communicate in a concise manner exactly what the patient has, and their meaning should be clear even to doctors who speak different languages. However, sometimes one feels that the doctors are overdoing it. Here is a look at some medical terms. If you have trouble pronouncing these words you can input them into this website which will pronounce them for you.
Have you ever experienced “ice cream headache” or “brain freeze”? This happens when a very cold foodstuff comes in contact with the roof of the mouth. Well in medicine this is called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.
If you ever had hiccups, what you really had was a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.
If your intestines ever made noise due to too much fluid or gas, then you had borborygmus. And if you ever felt a sharp pain in the butt, you had proctalgia fugax, which sounds to me like a more sophisticated thing to have than a sharp pain in the butt.
Have you ever had an ingrown toenail? Well, for your information, you had either onychocryptosis or unguis incarnates depending on whether you choose the Greek or Latin terms.
Have you ever experienced formication (with an “m”)? This is the sensation that bugs are crawling on your skin. And if you ever had goosebumps, what you really had was horripilation.
Most people have experienced the sensation of their arm “falling asleep” due to having slept on top of it and blocked blood flow, this is called obdormition. The prickling sensation you experience when blood flow returns is called paresthesia.
If you have ever vomited, you experienced emesis. If you have ever belched, then you engaged in eructation. And if you ever had a hangover, you really had veisalgia.
Whereas the above words are relatively short, some of the big words in medicine are reserved for medical procedures or diseases.
If you ever had your tonsils removed, then you had a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty.
People who have a simultaneous inflammation of the urinary track, the bladder, and the kidneys have cystoureteropyelonephritis.
In men, low levels of sperm that display little movement and are irregular in shape is called oligoasthenoteratozoospermia.
An inherited condition of the thyroid gland that causes short stature and many problems with the joints is called pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism.
The procedure of imaging the esophagus, stomach, and a part of the small intestine called duodenum with a specialized scope is called an Esophagogastroduodenoscopy.
The longest word in Gould’s Medical Dictionary is hepaticocholangiocholecystenterostomy. It is a surgical procedure that creates a connection between the gall bladder and the hepatic duct and between the gall bladder and the intestine.
The most ironic of medical names is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Believe it or not, this social phobia is the fear of long words! People with this phobia may feel dizzy, tremble, break out in sweat, and develop nausea, shortness of breath, and headaches when reading a long word. The singer-songwriter Bryant Oden composed a song using this word.
Finally, as if the above were not enough, groups of medical practitioners and medical centers develop slangs of their own. For example, the procedure of coronary artery bypass grafting, or CABG, is called “cabbage” by some. Not all slang is innocuous. When some patients end up in the intensive care unit because they did an incredibly stupid thing, some exasperated doctors that would rather be elsewhere than treating a dummy refer to the patient as having fecal encephalopathy (sh*t for brains)! Some doctors even use slang for each other. Thus the psychiatrists are the “Freud Squad”, the anesthesiologists are the “Gassers”, and the general surgeons are the “Slashers".
Medicine is an ancient profession with a vocabulary which has been influenced by many cultures that keeps shifting as knowledge evolves. While this creates some challenges for both doctors and patients, medical terminology is vital for communicating information accurately within the medical profession. So next time you see one of those medical terms, please don’t engage in lachrymation (crying) or bruxism (grinding your teeth) or experience hyperhidrosis (excess sweating). Just calm down and look up the term. You will most likely find it has a very precise and logical meaning.