Decoding the '-Omas'
Reviewed on September 12, 2012
By Robert H. Shmerling, M.D.
Perhaps you've heard the words adenoma, lipoma and papilloma before. The all end with "-oma." It's one of the most common medical suffixes (word endings) used by doctors in medical records and biopsy reports. What does it mean?
In general, "-oma" refers to a tumor. Because there are so many different locations and types of tumors, including benign and cancerous tumors, there are hundreds of "-oma" words. To make it even more confusing, this suffix is sometimes used to describe a localized swelling that is not actually a tumor. These words may sound exotic, but armed with your new knowledge of the "-oma" suffix, they will be easy to figure out.
"-Oma" comes from the Greek word for swelling, onk˘ma. The "stem" or part of the word that precedes "-oma" tells you what type of tumor or swelling it is.
So, for example, a lipoma is a benign tumor made of fat. (The Greek word for fat is lipos.) An adenoma is a benign tumor commonly found in the colon as a polyp. If it's not removed, it can become colon cancer. A papilloma is a wart or a lumpy tumor found in many parts of the body. Genital warts, a well-known sexually transmitted disease, are caused by infection with human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus also increases the risk of cervical cancer.
If you hang around doctors long enough you're bound to hear one or more of the following terms:
It might seem straightforward now that every medical word ending in "-oma" will be describing a tumor or a localized swelling of some sort. Not so fast. Some words end in "-oma" but don't refer to a tumor or any type of swelling. Examples include:
Medicine has its own language and, like any language, there are rules and logic and many exceptions to both! Knowing a bit about the most common word beginnings (prefixes) and endings (suffixes) can help you understand the medicalese doctors speak and write. No matter how much you know, however, there will always be new words, new uses for old words and even bad handwriting that can trip you up. In those cases, be sure to ask your doctor to explain in plain language. Otherwise, you may be hearing the words but not really knowing what your doctor is saying.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.