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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

What Your Doctor Is Saying What Your Doctor Is Saying

Decoding Disease Names

April 08, 2013

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Ever wonder how diseases or conditions get their names? They can certainly be intimidating and hard to pronounce. In fact, diseases are named in many ways. Here are just a few.

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Names that Describe What's Happening

"Endometriosis," "ankylosing spondylitis" and "pneumoconiosis" sound mysterious. But their names are based on a process happening in a specific place in the body.

  • Endometriosis – The endometrium is the lining of the uterus. The suffix "-osis" means there's too much of something. Together they describe a condition in which tissue from the lining the uterus grows outside its normal location, such as the inner lining of the abdominal wall or in the intestine.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis – The name comes from the Greek word "ankylos," which means "stiffening." In medicine, the term ankylosis indicates that two bones have fused together. The prefix, "spondyl," refers to the spine; the suffix "itis" means there is inflammation. So now you can figure out that ankylosing spondylitis is a form of inflammation in the joints of the spine that cause the bones to fuse together.
  • Pneumoconiosis – "Pneumo"refers to the lung (as with "pneumonia"); "-coniosis" comes from the Greek word "konis" or dust. Pneumoconiosis is a family of lung diseases that affects miners. It results from breathing in air that has coal, asbestos or silica particles. When due to coal, this condition has been called black lung disease.

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Names Based on the Activities of the People Who Get the Disease

Medicine has named some diseases after the activities of people who are affected by them. Here are some examples:

  • Nursemaid's knee (or house maid's knee) – The medical term is prepatellar bursitis. This common condition is an inflammation of the bursa (or sac) over the front of the knee cap due to repetitive injury or pressure. It's a common condition among wrestlers and carpet layers.
  • Silo filler's disease – This preventable and serious lung disease occurs when a person inhales certain nitrogen-containing gases (called oxides) that are found in silos where corn and other grains are stored. This is different from "farmer's lung" (an allergic reaction to grain, straw or moldy hay), bird fancier's lung (an allergic lung reaction to feathers or bird droppings) or black lung disease mentioned above.
  • Dementia pugilistica – This is a form of brain damage that develops at an unusually young age among boxers. The name comes from a older term for fighters or boxers: pugilists. Now dementia pugilistica would likely be part of the brain disease called traumatic encephalopathy. It is reported among professional football players and others who have had multiple brain injuries, including concussions.

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Names That Are Easy To Figure Out

Many conditions are simply named for the circumstances in which they occur. For example:

  • Computer-vision syndrome – Symptoms of blurry vision, headaches and eye dryness can result from too much computer use.
  • Broken-heart syndrome (also called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) – This is a form of heart disease brought on by severe emotional stress.
  • Cell phone thumb – The frequent use of a cell phone can cause a painful inflammation of thumb tendons (tendonitis).

If your doctor mentions a disease or condition you’ve never heard of, ask him or her to explain. But, every now and then you'll be able to figure it out on your own. The name may tell you all you need to know.

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