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How to Know the Meaning of Medical Codes through Suffixes and Prefixes

After you become familiar with prefixes and suffixes as a medical coder or biller, you’ll be able to make sense of the word as a whole. When you take the parts and assemble them, you have a medical term. It should be apparent at this point that doctors and nurses are not the only ones who need to understand medical terminology.

Common terms assembled from the basic prefix/suffix combinations include the following:

  • Chondromalacia: Chondro- refers to cartilage; -malacia means “softening,” so chondromalacia means “softening of the cartilage.”

  • Arthritis: Arthr- refers to the joints; -itis means “inflammation,” so arthritis means “inflammation of the joint.”

  • Osteopenia: Osteo- means “bone,” and -penia means “deficiency.” Therefore, osteopenia means “loss of bone.”

  • Nephritis: Nephr- refers to the kidneys, and -itis means “inflammation.” Therefore, nephritis means “kidney infection.”

  • Myalgia: My- refers to muscles, and -algia means “pain.” Therefore, myalgia means “pain the in muscles.”

As you can see, the words can be mixed and matched as needed, and they take on different meanings as they are assembled. Adding to the potential confusion is the fact that many of the terms commonly used are quite similar and can seem deceptively close in meaning.

To the untrained eye, they may actually seem to be the same. But the smallest of differences can make a big difference in reimbursement. The key to accurately charging the payer is a careful review of the record.

Here are a few examples of some similar-sounding terms that are actually different procedures. See whether you can spot the differences:

Term 1 Term 2
Arthrotomy (surgery that is done through an open incision into a joint) Arthroscopy (a surgical procedure performed by inserting a scope into a joint)
Laparotomy (surgery performed via an open incision into the abdominal cavity) Laparoscopy (a surgical procedure performed by inserting a scope into the abdominal cavity)
Tenodesis (repair of a tendon that has been cut or torn) Tenolysis (release of a tendon that is constricted by fibrosis or scar tissue)

The same too-close-for-comfort issue is true of terms used to describe medical diagnosis, they may use similar terminology, but a minor distinction makes a big difference when you’re coding. Here are some examples:

Term 1 Term 2
Hypertension (high blood pressure) Hypotension (low blood pressure)
Bradycardia (slow heartbeat) Tachycardia (fast heartbeat)
Angioplasty (technique to treat blocked coronary arteries) Angiography (technique to visualize and diagnose arterial disease)

As the preceding examples show, you must read the record carefully to avoid costly errors.

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