Diseases can often change the size of various body parts. So when doctors need to describe the heart or lungs, or abnormal findings such as tumors by their size, you might think the words "big" and "small" would do just fine. What could be more efficient?
Yet medical language replaces these simple terms with ones that are less readily understood. Perhaps saying "cardiomegaly" is more precise or efficient than saying "the heart is big," but it's also much harder for the non-medical person to understand.
Knowing a few suffixes, prefixes and specific terms can go a long way toward helping you understand what your doctor is saying. Here are a few examples.
Disease or the body's adaptations to a disease often causes a vital organ or body part to enlarge. Heart enlargement is a common condition, often a result of high blood pressure, an abnormal heart valve or congestive heart failure.
Almost any organ can enlarge under the right circumstances. In fact, heart failure can not only lead to heart enlargement but it can cause liver enlargement as well. That's because as fluid backs up behind a poorly pumping heart, it can wind up in the liver, making it congested (and enlarged). The extremities can enlarge when a pituitary tumor produces too much growth hormone. In each of these situations, the suffix "-megaly" is used to describe enlargement:
Another term is sometimes used to describe enlarged organs. When the tongue is enlarged, for example, it's not called "tongue-omegaly" or even "glossomegaly" (since the root for tongue is "gloss-"). The actual term is macroglossia. "Macro" is a prefix that means "large," similar to the suffix "megaly." Other "macro-" words include:
The most common prefix to describe something small is "micro." It appears in everyday words such as microscope and microchip. Here are some medical examples of its use:
In addition to descriptions of big and small, doctors commonly use medical terms for "too much" or "too little." Hypertension, for example, is another term for high ( too much ) blood pressure and hyperthyroidism is a condition marked by an excess of thyroid hormone in the body.
By contrast, "hypo" is a prefix indicating there is too little of something. Hypotension means low ("too little") blood pressure and hypothyroidism means there is too little thyroid hormone in the body.
Another common suffix that serves a similar purpose is "-penia," as in:
When something is completely absent, the prefix "a-" is often used. It means "without" as in:
Plenty of "regular" words use this prefix to mean "without:" amnesia (lack of memory) and amoral (lack of morals), for example.
In medical terminology, there are many ways to describe size and quantity. In my view, the best words to use are also the easiest to understand. While we doctors fall easily into the habit of speaking our own private language, I believe little is gained by using technical terms to describe big, small, plentiful and scarce. If you don't understand what your doctor is saying, ask him or her to use "regular" words, regardless of whether they are big or small.
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.