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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 the 'Plasties'

January 06, 2015

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Healthy Lifestyle
What Your Doctor Is Saying
Decoding the 'Plasties'
Decoding the 'Plasties'
It's not always easy to know what your doctor is saying. Knowing what "plasty" means can help you decipher a long list of medical or surgical terms.
Harvard Medical School Commentary

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character is given career advice in a single word: "plastics." If the movie were made today, the advice might be "plasty" instead.

The 3 R's of "Plasty"

The suffix "plasty" comes from the Greek, "-plastos", meaning "molded." In medical use, it applies to surgical procedures that repair, restore, replace or improve a part of the body. It's commonly used when referring to the rapidly growing field of cosmetic surgery.

Over time, its use has broadened and, as the examples below show, it can apply to many different types of surgery. Many of these terms may sound unfamiliar because you probably know them by other names:

  • Arthroplasty – Surgery to repair a joint, such as a hip
  • Rhinoplasty – An operation to alter the shape or appearance of the nose or "a nose job"
  • Angioplasty – A procedure most commonly performed by cardiologists or vascular surgeons to open up a blocked or narrowed blood vessel; a common type is the "balloon angioplasty" in which a balloon is inflated in a coronary artery to prevent a heart attack
  • Uvuloplasty – Surgery on the uvula (the tissue that dangles down from the back of the throat) to help prevent obstruction of air flow while sleeping
  • Mammoplasty – Surgery to change the appearance of the breasts, including augmentation mammoplasty (making the breasts larger) and reduction mammoplasty (making them smaller)

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"Plasties" on the Rise

My guess is that you will hear more and more "plasty" terms as time goes by. New procedures, it seems, are particularly likely to include the term "plasty." That's because the frequency of cosmetic procedures is on the rise and because operations with small incisions to repair (rather than replace) damaged body parts are safer and require less recovery time than other operations. Here are four relatively new procedures that have taken on this suffix. Can you "decode" their meaning? (The answers are below.)

  • Valvuloplasty
  • Oculoplasty
  • Abdominoplasty
  • Cardiomyoplasty

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Other Terms for Surgical Repairs

There are other ways doctors describe surgical repair. The most common operation – hernia repair – is called herniorrhaphy. The suffix, "-rrhaphy" means to repair using strong sutures or sewing.

Another common joint operation is called arthrodesis, the surgical fusion of two bones to stabilize the joint and reduce pain. And the term "-pexy" means to suspend or stabilize, as with gastropexy, an operation that attaches the stomach to the abdominal wall to prevent excessive movement or twisting of the stomach.

Each of these terms describes some aspect of the operation itself. Each could have used the "plasty" suffix, but some information would have been lost. For example, an arthrodesis is a form of arthroplasty but "-desis" means fusion and is a more accurate and specific term for a procedure that fuses a joint.

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The Bottom Line

It's not always easy to know what your doctor is saying. Knowing what "plasty" means will help you decipher a long list of medical or surgical terms. If you don't understand a term your doctor uses, ask him or her to explain. At least for some of these "plasty" operations, you won't even have to ask.

The New "Plasties"

  • Valvuloplasty – The repair of a heart valve, usually because it is narrowed or leaky
  • Oculoplasty – Surgical repair or improvement of the eyebrows, eyelids, or the eye socket; the term blepharoplasty, a common procedure, refers to an eyelid lift
  • Abdominoplasty – Surgery on the abdominal wall to remove excess skin or fat; also called a "tummy tuck"
  • Cardiomyoplasty – An experimental operation on the heart to improve its function; muscle from the back or abdomen is removed and wrapped around a failing heart, then stimulated with electrical signals to contract as an aid to the reduced pumping ability of the heart

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.

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