By Beverley Henderson, Jennifer Lee Dorsey

There are some medical terminology acronyms you will need to know. An acronym is a word (or abbreviation) formed by the first letters or syllables of other words. Most acronyms are expressed in uppercase letters, but not always.

For example, you might be familiar with the words scuba and laser. These terms are so well known that they have become acceptable as words in their own right. Scuba began life as an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.Laser was an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. These two humble acronyms went on to greater glory as bona fide words.

There are, to put it mildly, many acronyms in medical terminology, some of which are common, some not so common. It is important to know the context in which they are used, because many are identical or sound similar, but have quite different meanings. Here are some common medical acronyms.

  • AMA: American Medical Association

  • AMA: Against medical advice

  • CAT: Computerized axial tomography (scan)

  • CAT: Children’s apperception test

  • COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

  • COPE: Chronic obstructive pulmonary emphysema

  • ECT: Electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy)

  • ECT: Enteric-coated tablet

  • ECT: Euglobulin clot test

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging

  • MRI: Medical Research Institute

  • MRI: Medical records information

As you can see, many acronyms look the same, but actually mean something different. Knowing the context in which an acronym is being used is very important. Many common acronyms can be misinterpreted.

Next on the tour of plural forms is the antonym, proving once and for all that opposites do attract. An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another word. Examples would be right/wrong, right/left, up/down, and front/back. With reference to medical terms, some prefixes can be paired as opposites.

Prefix What It Means
Ab- Moving away from (abduction)
Ad- Drawing toward (adduction)
Anterior- Front
Posterior- Back
Bio- Life
Necro- Death
Brady- Slow
Tachy- Fast
Cephalo- Head (upward)
Caudo- Tail (downward)
Endo- Within, inside
Exo- Outside
Eu- Normal, well
Dys- Difficult, unwell
Hyper- Above or excessive
Hypo- Below or deficient
Leuko- White
Melano- Black
Pre- Before or in front of
Post- After or behind
Proximal- Near (think proximity)
Distal- Away from (think distance)
Superior- Above
Inferior- Below

Eponyms

Eponyms are an unusual and interesting facet of the plural world. An eponym is a person, place, or thing from which a person, place, or thing gets (or is reputed to get) its name. For example, Romulus is the eponym of Rome. It can also refer to a person whose name is a synonym for something (from the Greek eponymos: epi [to] + onyma [name]).

In the medical field, a disease, sign, operation, surgical instrument, syndrome, or test is often named after a certain physician, surgeon, scientist, or researcher.

In current usage, it is now acceptable to drop the possessive apostrophe from most eponyms, so either is acceptable. For example, you can use Alzheimer’s or Alzheimer.

Here are some of the most popular medical eponyms:

  • Apgar score: Named after Virginia Apgar, American anesthesiologist (1909–1974). A numbering expressing the condition of a newborn infant at 1 minute of age and again at 5 minutes.

  • Alzheimer’s disease: Named for Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist (1864–1915). A progressive degenerative disease of the brain.

  • Cushing’s syndrome: Named for Harvey Williams Cushing, American surgeon (1869–1939). A complex of symptoms caused by hyperactivity of the adrenal cortex.

  • Down syndrome: Named after John Haydon Down, English physician (1828–1896). A chromosomal disorder, also called trisomy 21, formerly called mongolism.

  • Gleason grade: Named for Donald Gleason, American pathologist (1920–2008). A rating of prostate cancer assigning scores of 1–5 for degrees of primary and secondary growth.

  • Hodgkin’s disease: A form of malignant lymphoma. Named for Thomas Hodgkin, an English physician (1798–1866).

  • Homans’ sign: Named for John Homans, American surgeon (1877–1954). Pain on dorsiflexion of the foot; a sign of thrombosis of deep veins of the calf.

  • Ligament of Treitz: Located in the intestinal tract. Named after Wenzel Treitz, a Czech physician (1819–1872).

  • Lyme disease: A multisystemic disorder transmitted by ticks. Named after a place, Old Lyme, Connecticut, where the disease was first reported in 1975.

  • Peyronie’s disease: Named for Francois de la Peyronie, a French surgeon (1678–1747). It means a deformity or curvature of the penis caused by fibrous tissue within the tunica albuginea. When distortion of the penis is severe it causes erectile dysfunction or severe pain during intercourse.

  • Parkinson’s disease: Named for James Parkinson, English physician (1755–1824). A group of neurological disorders including tremors and muscular rigidity.

Homonyms

Similar to the antonyms is the homonym. A homonym is a word that has the same pronunciation as another, but a different meaning, and in most cases a different spelling (from the Greek homonymos: homos [same] + onyma [name].

Some common English language homonyms would be meat and meet, peal and peel, bare and bear, feet and feat, or pain and pane. While the list could go on and on with everyday English words, there are a few true homonyms in medical terminology.

Word What It Means
Cholic An acid, related to bile
Colic Severe abdominal pain
Humerus A long bone in the upper arm
Humorous Funny
Ileum A portion of the colon
Ilium A part of the pelvic bone
Jewel A precious stone
Joule A unit of energy
Lice A parasite
Lyse To break
Loop An oval or circular ring, by bending
Loupe Magnifying glass or lens
Mnemonic To assist in remembering
Pneumonic Pertaining to the lungs (the “p” is silent)
Mucus Secretion of the mucous membranes
Mucous Adjective form of mucus (resembling mucus)
Plane Anatomic (imaginary) level
Plain Not fancy (plain x-rays)
Plural More than one
Pleural Pertaining to the lung
Psychosis Mental disorder
Sycosis Inflammation of hair follicles
Radical Extreme or drastic
Radicle A vessel’s smallest branch
Venus A planet
Venous Pertaining to a vein