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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

'Dys' Can Help You Understand Your Doctor

February 27, 2013

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Last reviewed February 27, 2013

The language of medicine can be confusing. But sometimes it overlaps considerably with that of everyday communication. The prefix "dys" is a good example. Have you ever heard a relationship described as dysfunctional? Are you familiar with the terms dysentery or dyslexia? How about dyspnea, dyspepsia or dyspareunia?

We'll get to those last three a bit later. The prefix "dys" come from the Greek words describing something that is bad, abnormal, diseased or the opposite of the rest of the word.

Knowing this explains why a dysfunctional relationship is one that is not going well. And it's why dysentery refers to a severe digestive illness (usually caused by a bacterial infection) — it combines the "dys" prefix with a form of "enteric," from the Greek enterikos, meaning intestines.

Dyslexia describes a condition in which a person has significant problems with language-based information; reading and spelling tend to be particularly difficult. Its name combines the prefix "dys" with "lexis," from the Greek word for "word." Interestingly, the term "dyslexia" is relatively new — its first recorded use was in the early 1960s.

Perhaps the best, or at least the most recent, example of how this medical prefix has crept into common usage is erectile dysfunction (or E.D.). This medical term for impotence has become much more commonly known thanks to the availability of new drugs (including Viagra and Cialis) to treat impotence and the advertising campaigns for them. Perhaps advertisers promoting these new medications thought "E.D." sounded better than "impotence" or "the inability to have or maintain an erection for sexual intercourse." It's another example of medical lingo crossing over into everyday language.

Common "Dys" Words

Doctors use this prefix rather commonly. In fact, my medical dictionary has several pages of "dys" words. Some of the more common ones are described below:

    • Dysarthria, difficulty in speaking — It combines "dys" with the Greek root arthroun, which means "to speak clearly." Dysarthria usually is used to describe a speech problem related to abnormal brain function, such as a stroke.
    • Dyskinesia, difficulty with voluntary movement — It combines "dys" with the Greek root kineto, meaning motion. The term dyskinesia is often combined with the term "tardive," which means "lateness," or something that does not occur right away. Tardive dyskinesia is a dreaded and sometimes permanent side effect of taking certain medications (especially anti-psychotic drugs) for a period of time. It is characterized by involuntary movements of the lips, tongue, trunk, arms and legs.
    • Dysmenorrhea, painful menstruation — It combines "dys" with the Greek men, meaning month, and rhein, meaning "to flow." While a woman might complain of bloating, pain, cramps or other symptoms, her doctor may simply write "dysmenorrhea" as the diagnosis.
    • Dyspareunia, painful sexual intercourse — It comes from the Greek dyspareunos, meaning "badly mated."
    • Dyspepsia, a medical term for indigestion that technically means abnormal digestion — The name combines "dys" with the Greek peptein, meaning "to digest." Typically, dyspepsia describes a discomfort in the upper abdomen that might be caused by ulcer disease, but dyspepsia is often not related to ulcers. Doctors distinguish ulcer pain from "non-ulcer dyspepsia" — the latter is much more common.
    • Dysphagia, difficulty swallowing — It combines "dys" with the Greek root phagein, meaning to eat. If you were to complain of food sticking in your throat when you try to swallow, your doctor might record "dysphagia" as your complaint.
    • Dyspnea, shortness of breath — This term comes from the Greek word dyspnoia, meaning difficulty breathing. One type, called paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, or PND (meaning episodes of nighttime shortness of breath), is a characteristic symptom of heart failure.
    • Dystrophy, any condition that arises from faulty nutrition or development — It comes from a combination of "dys" with the Greek root trephein, meaning "to nourish." One common use of this word is to describe a family of genetic muscle diseases, collectively called the "muscular dystrophies."
    • Dysuria, painful urination — It combines "dys" with the Greek root ouron, meaning urine. This is a common symptom among people with bladder infections or urinary tract infections (UTIs).

What's the Opposite?

You might wonder whether there is a counterpart to "dys" to describe good function or a situation when everything is normal. In fact, there are several. "Eu-" or "normo-" are two common prefixes that describe the state of normality for whatever follows. For example, "euvolemic" means the volume of fluids in the body is normal; "normotensive" means the blood pressure is normal. These will be covered in a future column.

Getting To Know Dys

Sometimes, a little translation goes a long way. Knowing what "dys" means and how it is used in medical terminology can help decipher a large number of words and phrases you may hear or read in your contacts with health care professionals. In fact, you may already be using these terms regularly without realizing how common they are in "medicalese."

Getting to know the "dys" prefix can explain terms and phrases contained in your medical record or even in medical advertisements. But it can do more than that — it can also help you understand 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.

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